Carl Johns can claim any number of titles: leader of Madison’s off-kilter Americana collective Noahjohn; head of the Killdeer label; editor of the late zine Wild Chirp; bearer of the finest handlebar mustache seen in Wisconsin since Rollie Fingers pitched for the Brewers. But it’s as his country-pop avatar, Charlemagne, that he seems poised for his greatest success. Already lavishly praised in the UK, Charlemagne’s eponymously titled LP (on Winterlander) is not just 2004’s most auspicious debut but a strong contender for album of the year, a tremblingly beautiful set that mates midwestern earnestness with sunny California canyon cool. Remarkably, the record began as a stopgap side project for Johns when Noahjohn bassist Lisa Hinzman went on maternity leave in 2003. Although he sings and plays everything, the 11 tracks conjure the multilayered jingle-jangling of the Byrds, the eclectic, communal spirit of the Mamas & the Papas, and the featherlight twang touch of Hearts and Flowers. Johns’s fluttering, fragile voice covers much the same territory as cosmic country pioneers Gene Clark and Gram Parsons, and he often coasts home–on tracks like “Prisoner Of” and “In Absentia”–atop sweet swaths of whispered harmonies. Considerably poppier than anything in Noahjohn’s catalog, the album will have fans of Galaxie 500 and Loaded-era Velvet Underground humming along in approval with its simple beats and gauzy melodies. Live, Charlemagne is backed by five outlandishly costumed accomplices, including a pair of female singers who sit and knit when they’re not on mike; the band’s set features material from a not-yet-recorded follow-up plus drastic reinterpretations of schmaltzy classics like “Angel of the Morning.” The Rutabega and Oh Yeah open. $7. Wednesday, August 11, 9 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cris Comello.