K Records impresario Calvin Johnson tried the solo singer-songwriter thing for a while, but that’s not usually how people prefer to hear him. Anybody who caught one of Johnson’s acoustic coffeeshop sets around the release of his 2002 solo debut, What Was Me, might have been struck by how uncomfortably bare they could be. Johnson’s performances, heavy on a cappella, longed for some accompaniment to temper the intensity of his brutalist baritone and unblinking gaze. Some presences are just too overpowering to take in unadorned.
Johnson’s most beloved work was recorded within the conceptual framework of a band: the lovelorn pop of Beat Happening, the galactic rock of the Halo Benders, the kitchen-sink dance of Dub Narcotic Sound System. Johnson’s fairytale giant voice fares better when paired with an equally unusual instrumental accompaniment, and his subsequent solo albums have swapped What Was Me’s austere intimacy for more varied and lively arrangements.
For 2018’s A Wonderful Beast, he teamed with the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney for a pinball-machine reimagining of a blues-rock record. Some of those blues influences carry through to his new follow-up, Gallows Wine, but this time they’re just one of many modes that Johnson toggles between as part of a restless pastiche of primitive rock’n’roll, rockabilly, cowpoke ditties, and living-room dub. Recorded in Columbus, Mississippi, with the psych outfit Hartle Road, the album replaces Carney’s modernist thump with the straight-to-tape sensibilities of the earliest Sun Records releases.
In its dedication to direct songwriting and bygone strains of oldies, Gallows Wine can feel kindred to Jonathan Richman’s crooned homages to the teen music of yesteryear. Johnson even drops a “She’s my baby and I don’t mean maybe” on the closing “Crazy Legs.” But while Richman’s voice and demeanor continue to exude earnest, youthful wonder in his golden years, Johnson’s presence is more mischievous.
On Gallows Wine, he giddily indulges his most pranksterish impulses. The spaghetti western kitsch of “Tony Deano” descends into sheer camp while “Blues (We Got ‘Em)” sets old-timey blues tropes against skronky swing that grows more volatile by the verse. Johnson’s usual confrontational edge is on full display, but he offsets it with jolts of levity. The instrumental “Orange Aid” casts his huffing melodica solos against dizzying funk, while the garage rocker “A Walk in the Sun” lays down a go-go tempo so infectious it makes even Johnson’s leaden voice sound light on its toes.
Johnson’s Dub Narcotic records took similar pleasure in drilling into disparate styles, but that group’s grab-bag sensibilities felt part and parcel with the ’90s, a time when acts like Beastie Boys and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion excavated old record crates in search of unlikely currents of cool. The muses on Gallows Wine, in contrast, are so unexpected, so divorced from any possible notions of hipness, that the project stands out even in Johnson’s idiosyncratic discography. It’s one of his most esoteric, uninhibited albums, and after four decades of indulging novel whims, that’s really saying something.
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