Ever since he helped found Beat Happening in 1982, Calvin Johnson has been far more interested in music that feels right and honest than sounds that are technically precise, and for good or ill he's become an avatar of the concept of inspired amateurism in the quarter-decade that's followed. But no doubt a few fans have wondered over the years, "What would Calvin Johnson sound like if he sang with a real rock & roll band -- one with musicians who could actually play their instruments?" Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil is a game attempt to answer this question. Featuring Johnson fronting a band including Kyle Field from Little Wings on bass and Jason Anderson (Wolf Colonel) and Adam Forkner (Yume Bitsu) trading off on drums and guitar, this album documents Johnson revisiting nine songs from his various post-Beat Happening projects, but while this group certainly couldn't compete with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the chops department, the results are technically accomplished in a way very little of Johnson's music has been in the past. This band can creditably cut the funk on "Banana Meltdown," generate a cloud of sexy menace on "Booty Run," sound romantic and winsome on "Can We Kiss," and make a great slice of jangle pop out of "Sand." So how does this new embrace of technically skilled performing impact the group's frontman? A bit surprisingly, Johnson takes to this stuff like a duck to water; while his craggy baritone still wobbles a bit (as it always has), for the most part he slips into the role of "professional entertainer" with tongue-in-cheek aplomb (as the two examples of live show patter included here demonstrate), and on these songs he shows a confidence and an expressive range that's broader than he's revealed in the past, digging deeper into the emotional heart of the lyrics now he has a firmer foundation to stand on. Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil doesn't reveal him to be the new Sinatra, but anyone who has ever heard Beat Happening and said "that guy can't sing" might be in for a surprise when they hear this disc.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming