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Friday, August 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch

Au revoir, Mike Johnson — we hardly knew ya

In a letter to his beloved, the struggling, unappreciated writer Franz Kafka described his life as "an exquisitely calculated hell. Yet — and this is the main point — not without its good moments."

Toiling in Kafka-esque anonymity is a Seattle singer-songwriter who, though hopefully not as emotionally tortured as that Prague writer, struggles to find an audience for his piercing words.

Mike Johnson — even his name is an unspectacular, could-be-anyone, anyman moniker — is a tallish, slender, unassuming man of 40. The small patch of facial hair below his lip is the only hint that he's a musician, but you have to look hard to see that.

In this age of flash and hype, fakery and posing, Johnson's low-key nature and humble approach perhaps work against him, commercially, at least. Though he recently released the fourth of his remarkably concise, soul-plumbing solo albums that established him as the Northwest's Leonard Cohen, he fails to be much of a draw in his adopted hometown.

Johnson, an Oregon native, has lived here for most of his adult life, working for a good chunk of that time with underground-rock legends Dinosaur Jr. and Mark Lanegan, both of which are huge draws. Yet Johnson's performances are largely ignored by Seattle, and a recent show at the War Room drew only a handful of people.

"It was brutal," Johnson said with an embarrassed chuckle Sunday afternoon, sipping coffee in his Capitol Hill neighborhood. An employee of his label, Up Records, sized up the War Room crowd (or lack of one) and said, perhaps not entirely jokingly: "Good thing you're leaving."

Sadly, though perhaps inevitably, Seattle is losing this rich musical resource. Johnson and his French wife are moving to her native country sometime in the next year.

Even so, Johnson doesn't expect to shake this region from his mind.

"There's a certain darkness to the Northwest psyche, I think, that's naturally going to be a part of me," he mused.

That darkness has cloaked his previous albums, and his new "Gone Out of Your Mind" is hardly light. It takes off in slightly different directions, perhaps more big-picture views. And it's not difficult to interpolate a certain cynical quality to Johnson's latest batch of songs, as the singer seems to size up a world of disappointments.

"I can't face it / and be your friend," Johnson sings on his latest CD. Perhaps the line is subconsciously directed toward this city, as Johnson, like many other artists who have been around here long enough to feel it, senses an insidious turn here, with commerce and business squeezing out Seattle's artistic soul.

"They're not your friends anymore," he sneers on the spooky title track (which strongly echoes Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage," though Johnson is surprised to hear this).

"Gone Out of Your Mind" is Johnson's first album since 2002's "What Would You Do" (devoted to Chris Takino, the Up Records founder who died of leukemia). It's his most musically challenging album, replacing the minimalist elegance of his earlier albums with crazy layers of guitars, wandering in and out of formation. The Spartan nature of his previous albums, he says, is because he was renting studio space, trying to work as cheaply/quickly as possible. "Gone Out of Your Mind," conversely, was recorded in musician-producer Jim Roth's Magnolia basement.

"My other records were recorded in studios, and I was paying a lot of money — there was always pressure to do things fast," Johnson said. "This one, we decided we would do whatever the hell we wanted."

He enjoyed taking his time, experimenting with various sounds — mostly the guitars of Johnson, Roth and Brett Netson, who with Jason Albertini formed the backing band, the Evildoers.

Unfortunately, it took so long that when the Johnson record was finally ready for release, it was closely followed by Built to Spill's "You in Reverse." Roth and Netson are also in Built to Spill and will be touring extensively with Doug Martsch's band. So Johnson doesn't expect to do much of a tour, and perhaps nothing at all, providing little exposure for his daring new recording.

Johnson tries his hometown again with at show at 9 tonight at Ballard's Tractor Tavern ($8). He was expecting only Albertini from the Evildoers to be joining him.

Will it be his last Seattle show before he packs up his record collection (reggae, soul, psychedelic rock) and expatriates? "I don't think so," he says, smiling wryly and shaking hands on the corner of Broadway Avenue and Harvard Street. "But I don't know — maybe."

Tom Scanlon: tscanlon@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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