James Calvin Johnson's musical career spans four decades, and has largely been split between the Twin Cities and LA. Although working with a range of bands, Johnson always had a longer term project on the back burner. It has taken until now for this long term vision, Calvin James, to get around to recording an album.
Things get off to a very promising start with the first of eight original songs, "Learn How To Fight." It is a nice meaty slab of the sort of rhythm'n'blues that used to be so expertly done by bands like Rockpile (Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe et al.) in the early 1980's. Based around a Chuck Berry style riff, all the pieces--guitar, harmony vocals, horns--slot neatly into place. Things then head off into bluesier territory, with "It Ain't Over" providing the bridge to a brace of blues covers. Muddy Waters' "Louisiana Blues" is done with a rockier edge to the guitar, before a fine reading of Willie Dixon's "You Know My Love."
Stylistically James' music reflects a wide range of influences, running from blues through rockabilly to rock, although rarely mixing them up too much in the same song. The album's best moment comes on the original "Unbreakable." This sounds like a classic rhythm and blues song, of the sort that Fred James has been reviving around Nashville. (Calvin) James' vocals even sound uncannily like Earl Gaines in places, and it had me reaching for the liner notes to check the credits. Everything about the song will leave you wanting more: great vocals, fine horns, excellent piano, and a near perfect balance between guitar and rhythm section.
James manages to almost maintain the quality level with the rockabilly of "Jacki" before things start to cool off. Given what has gone before, the album eventually peters out, somewhat disappointingly, with a version of Annie Lennox's "Cold" which does not quite fit with the rest of the album, and the plodding "Rogue's Moon."
"It Ain't Over" is something of a mixed bag. James shows himself to be a proficient songwriter, and a good guitarist with an adaptable voice. The latter is needed to match the broad range of blues based styles on display. At its best ("Unbreakable"--worth the admission fee on its own) the album is positively sublime, and fortunately the album has lots more highs than lows.
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