The collaboration between Olympia scene stalwart Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System) and Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch — with keyboardist Steve Fisk and others (bassist Wayne Flower and drummer Ralf Youtz) helping out — is as good as anything either Northwest odd-pop icon has ever done. More complex and full-on rocking than Beat Happening and more consistently whimsical than Built to Spill, the Halo Benders combines Johnson’s sonorous deep voice and pixilated lyrical ideas with Martsch’s contrasting weedy tenor (he often sings entirely different lyrics here, creating what amount to rounds) and unpretentious guitar skill, realizing nifty songs in casually oblong arrangements. A sampler of extraordinary diversity, the ten tunes on God Dont Make No Junk hopscotch from the surf-twang goofiness of “Dont Touch My Bikini,” to the dramatic Traffic sweep of “Freedom Rider,” the hauntingly wistful “Will Work for Food,” the overdrive punk pop of “Canned Oxygen,” the skittering organ and tick-tock tempo of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and the brief dub dose of “Sit on It.” The lengthy “I Cant Believe Its True” shoulders too big a task for these hit-and-run tunesmiths, but otherwise the album is a stack of strange gems. Having spent years stripping rock down in the spartan Beat Happening, Johnson proves himself equal to far more ambitious musical adventures.
The equally wonderful Don’t Tell Me Now reduces the eclecticism but not the kinetic invention. “Halo Bender” is a charmingly pointless theme song (“You think you’re heaven-sent/Gonna get your halo bent…It’s the halo bender/a real career ender…The Halo Benders/washing all your dreams away”); the lovely “Mercury Blues,” gentle and pretty, is no more readily comprehensible. Calvin intones “Bomb Shelter Part 2” in a deadpan Homer Simpson voice, offering a confusing tribute to draft dodgers, military deserters and conscientious objectors. “I’m not gonna suggest you shouldn’t register for the draft — that wouldn’t be legal. But why not take a cue from my buddy Sam and register 10 times, 50 times, 100 times. There’s no law agin’ it.” It’s exactly that why-not imagination that makes the Halo Benders great.
On the more serious-sounding The Rebels Not In, each man supportively allows the other greater latitude and space to be himself. “Do That Thing” and “Love Travels Faster” are as strongly (and weirdly) collaborative as anything on the first two albums, but “Virginia Reel Around the Fountain” tilts the balance in favor of Martsch, with Johnson merely providing bottom-grazing counterpoint to what could otherwise be a finished Built to Spill track, and Martsch adds only guitar and a bit of subordinate harmony to “Your Asterisk.” Whichever the balance shifts, it’s delightful record, with surprising instrumental cohesion and rock power (“Bury Me”) as an added benefit.