K Records founder and keeper of the American indie music flame, Calvin Johnson, has been an integral part of the DIY scene for over 35 years. For the last fifteen of those years, while still releasing collaborative albums as part of The Hive Dwellers and Selector Dub Narcotic, Johnson has been recording and releasing solo albums. His latest, A Wonderful Beast, was produced by The Black Keys’ drummer Pat Carney, and it finds the idiosyncratic crooner backed by a much slicker sound that presents the traditionally lo-fi, ramshackle performer’s intentionally amateurish delivery in an atypically glossy, tidy frame.
A Wonderful Beast kicks off with “Kiss Me Sweetly”, the record’s first single and one of three songs to feature Carney’s fiancée, singer-songwriter Michelle Branch, on backing vocals. The rhythm section features prominently on this danceable number wherein Johnson analogizes kisses to haymakers and roundhouse punches. It’s a decent start to an album whose enjoyability quotient from song to song quickly devolves. As if leaning on Calvin’s trademark vocal delivery and gift for lyrical improv to keep things interesting, Carney’s compositions often feel monotonous, wearisome, and arbitrary.
In fairness to Carney, Johnson is often as much to blame for this collection’s tediousness. Unlike the clever wordplay and quaint rhymes Johnson imbued the songs on Selector Dub Narcotic’s This Party Is Just Getting Started with, here he sounds like he’s phoning it in. Within the first sixty seconds of the title track’s four-minute running time, Johnson begins to fill Carney’s bland musical canvas with dull moans and “uh huhs,” annoyingly repeating the words, “You’re a wonderful beast,” over and over. When a decent groove is laid out and an opportunity for something interesting to occur presents itself, like on the second side’s melodica-infused “Blues Come Runnin’”, Calvin again drops the ball, sounding bored and, unable to conjure something witty, filling space by repeating the song’s title ad infinitum.
Side two offers only a couple moments where the music and vocals come together well. The fuzzed-out, sunshiny “Bubbles, Clouds and Rainbows” has Johnson energetically chanting, “Everybody on your feet, alt-right click delete, now our rainbow world’s complete!” Additionally, the catchy pop groove of “Why You Crying” captures Calvin going off on a wonderfully ridiculous, seemingly impromptu rap about log cabins, Abraham Lincoln, and breakfast foods.
A Wonderful Beast works best when Calvin’s engaged lyrically and the music accompanying him is fully realized songs rather than simplistic patterns with an occasional guitar solo thrown in. Unfortunately, too often the songs that make up A Wonderful Beast leave the listener with a sense that both Carney and Johnson were silently counting on the other to save the record’s dullest moments. The result is a largely disappointing set and a lost opportunity for what had the potential to be a unique and exciting collaboration.