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Originally published Friday, July 6, 2012 at 10:26 AM

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'Love Rock Revolution' tells the story of Olympia's K Records

"Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music," a new book by Mark Baumgarten about the influential popular-music scene in Olympia in the '80s and '90s, is crammed with facts, but it doesn't unlock the mystery of enigmatic K Records founder Calvin Johnson.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearances

Mark Baumgarten

The author will read from and sign "Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music" at 6 p.m. Friday as part of the opening party for the exhibit "The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl" at the Henry Gallery, 15th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 41st St., Seattle; free with museum admission of $10 (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org). Baumgarten is also scheduled to appear at 7 p.m. July 18 at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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'Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music'

by Mark Baumgarten

Sasquatch, 270 pp., $17.95

BOOK REVIEW |

"As I dug deeper into the history of the Northwest artists I loved — Elliott Smith, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Sleater-Kinney, Nirvana — I discovered a common root: K Records," writes local author Mark Baumgarten in "Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music." "There must be a story here, I thought."

It's not a bad idea for a book. Anyone interested in indie rock knows those names are gods — only instead of on Mount Olympus, they all hung out in the cheap, arts-friendly sandbox of Olympia. Baumgarten's book is entertaining, especially if you're already a fan of Northwest rock music. The writing is clear and breezy. And if you have a computer handy for referencing songs on YouTube, you can build yourself a great playlist by Beat Happening, Mecca Normal and Courtney Love (the band, whose members were housemates with the singer before she got famous).

Structured chronologically and crammed with facts, the book has chapters separated by "brief history" passages ("A Brief History of Zines"; "A Brief History of Evergreen College"), which makes it a handy introduction to what K Records is and how it came to be. But there's a nagging sense of something unexplained. That's because the whole book centers on K Records' enigmatic founder and musician Calvin Johnson — a tough nut Baumgarten does not begin to crack.

Johnson's life was redirected by punk rock in the '70s, which he interpreted in a lovey, childlike way, and which spurred him to help establish influential rock subgenres "lo-fi" and "twee" in Olympia in the '80s and '90s — as well as to advocate for all-ages concerts back when nobody cared about that. His approach to music and business was heartfelt and unprofessional in a positive way.

He worked with some of the best musicians of our time, including Beck, Beth Ditto (of Gossip) and Kurt Cobain, who all released music on his label. Johnson still runs K Records on dreams and a shoestring. But what is Johnson's grand lesson? What's behind his magnetic pull? Is he touched by God? Is he a manipulator? Baumgarten leaves him uncriticized.

K Records came of age alongside Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars, local indie labels that gave the world grunge music and the feminist rock style called riot grrrl. All three were part of the same underground uprising — a more clear-cut cause back when major music labels had a stranglehold on the industry. They informed our region's musical character and international rock music in general. "Love Rock Revolution" tells part of that story. But there's a good book yet to be written that encapsulates the whole thing.

Andrew Matson blogs about music at www.seattletimes.com/matsononmusic. Reach him at matsononmusic@gmail.com

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