Music for Tourists
"We could laugh in hell together," Chris Garneau sings on "Relief." Over spare piano, cello, and drums, the singer's haunting, androgynous voice sounds like a choirboy crooning a lullaby, albeit a vengeful one. His debut, Music for Tourists, produced by Duncan Sheik, has all of the requisite hallmarks of the sensitive singer-songwriter genre––introspective lyrics, wistful arrangements, and a mournful tone—but it's the 24-year-old's voice that distinguishes him. Like Jeff Hanson and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, Garneau has a high, feathery falsetto. It's the male flip side to gravelly-voiced women such as Thalia Zedek and Marianne Faithfull. While whiskey-and-cigarette-scarred voices communicate rough experience and survival, Garneau uses his fey, whispery delivery to convey confusion and alienation. On "Saturday" he sings, "If I don't black out/I'll keep you inside me/I can't promise you anything." With cotton-mouthed enunciation and swallowed lines, he lends the simplicity of his words an obliqueness that places the emphasis on what he isn't saying. The fragile softness of Garneau's singing and the austerity of the arrangements have led many to think of him as a stripped-down Sufjan Stevens. But unlike the sprawling ambition of Stevens' project to record an album for each of the U.S. states, Brooklynite Garneau is autobiographical in the vein of Pink Moon–era Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell's Blue period. The lyrics are personal, but with plenty of loose ends that allow one to read into them. Mortality, disappointment, and doubt are woven throughout. He manages this on songs such as "We Don't Try" and "Black and Blue" with an exquisite mixture of revelation and withholding. He's a selective exhibitionist. NATE LIPPENS
Chris Garneau plays the Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave., 441-5611, www.thecrocodile.com. $8. 9 p.m. Tues., May 29.
Calvin Johnson & the Sons of the Soil
Calvin Johnson & the Sons of the Soil
Outside of Greg Sage of the now-defunct Dead Moon, I don't know of a more appropriate contemporary Northwest Folklife performer than Calvin Johnson. After all, like KAOS programming director John Foster before him, he's spent the past 20-plus years down in Oly championing regionalism and egalitarianism in indie rock, damn near single-handedly inventing the DIY folk movement. He's got an unmistakable foghorn of a voice, and the music behind it has always been rough and childlike, to say the least. His résumé boasts founding K Records, for starters, then goes on to include Dub Narcotic Soundsystem, the Halo Benders with Doug Martsch, and the Go Team, as well as just being the musical axis around which most of our capital city revolves. So, what's a guy to do when he's done all this at only a quarter-century into his career? Look back, I guess. And so he did. His recently released Calvin Johnson & the Sons of the Soil is kin to Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, Will Oldham's much-maligned revisiting of his older material via skilled Nashville session players. Here, Johnson uses the guys he toured with in 2003 (Jason Anderson, Kyle Field, and Adam Forkner) to back him up while he sings songs such as "Booty Run" and "Banana Meltdown." The mood on this record, however, isn't like that of Oldham's. This is more of a band rehearsal for a tour down the West Coast. It sounds a little juvenile in spots, but the live track "Tummy Hop" (recorded in Spokane!) reveals how practice makes perfect. The band sounds pretty tight, or as tight as you can be when backing up Calvin. As half-baked as it is, Calvin Johnson & the Sons of the Soil is still as distinct as everything the man has done. Yet, a co-worker just walked past my office and asked: "Which Silver Jews is this?" Sigh. . . . BRIAN J. BARR
Calvin Johnson plays Northwest Folklife Festival, Seattle Center, Cafe Impromptu, www.nwfolklife.org. $10 suggested donation. Doors open at 11 a.m. Sun., May 27.
The Levitation Shuffle
If "Seattle jazz" has a sound, it's most often the kind of determinedly mainstream, round-edged modernism of Origin Records, Tula's, and the like. Great stuff sometimes, but (as with Seattle politics) rather lacking in danger or surprise. But there's long been another strain to Northwest jazz—one that doesn't necessarily even affiliate with "jazz," one marked by a fierceness you get elsewhere in Seattle music. Wally Shoup is a longtime leader in this subterranean Seattle workforce, and his new disc of free improvisation is maybe his most arresting yet. I've often felt like Shoup's intensity got lost when he was competing, as he so often does, with the power of an electric guitar—nature's breath is always going to lose out to a Marshall stack and pedal-pushing shrieks. But when kindled, as here, by a strictly acoustic quartet, Shoup's dragonfire cuts a more awesome path than ever. Rarely in the Seattle free scene will you hear a session that is so assured from beginning to end, that never gets lost and never bails out through the overblowing escape hatch. In this 2003 session, just released on an adventurous Portuguese label, pianist Gust Burns and drummer Greg Campbell provide a restless, muscular undergirding, punchy and excitable for the full hour. Even more striking is the interplay between Shoup and onetime Seattle bassist Reuben Radding, who mimic and goad each other, reed to bow. It's no surprise that Shoup's a painter because he plays his alto sax in brush strokes—a thick slab, some spattered dabs, twisted lines, a crisscross repeated over and over. Then sometimes he'll just chuck the whole bucket against the canvas. As with paint, there's a strong surface, textural quality, and it's part of what differentiates Shoup from so many improvisers who are carving out melodies and songs, or following more of a Trane-like "questing" motion. This session does what free jazz should do—take you on a trip, destination unknown, where returning to the bridge or the chorus isn't going to happen, and yet you're just as sure, at the end of each cut, that you've arrived exactly where you're supposed to be. MARK D. FEFER