Stride Magazine -

  AMERICAN LANGUAGE, Dan Bern [Messenger]
MOBILIZE, Grant-Lee Phillips
[Cooking Vinyl]
Two albums which fall into the catch-all Alt-country bracket. There’s a school of thought that believes ‘Alt-country’ is just ‘Country’ instead of the bastardised, sugarised music that fills the country charts. Dan Bern, whose 5th album since 1996 this is, shares too much with the latter while emulating the coolness implied by that ‘alt’ prefix.

Beware albums which set out their agenda in the title. ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ protested a little too much. The title track of New American Language describes
Bern’s dream of ‘a new pop music / that tells the truth, with a good beat / and some nice harmonies’. Yet NAL doesn’t bear this out.

Firstly, the music is derivative and backwards-looking. ‘Turning Over’ flagrantly steals the riff to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Beast of Burden’, without any of the charm of say Neil Young’s ‘Borrowed Tune’ (which tips a nod to ‘Lady Jane’); elsewhere the mixture of phrase and cadence of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’ in ‘Albuquerque Lullaby’ proves the best example of prosody on the album.

On the plus side, the band has a nice line in cyclic chord patterns. ‘God Said No’, a soundalike of Emmylou Harris’ version of ‘Where Will I Be’ on Wrecking Ball, despite the unintentional joke ‘send me back in time / back to
Seattle’ is the standout and most interesting track on the album. It suggests we deal with the now as time is unfathomable and retrospect rose-tinted. It is simplistic in its choice of examples for sure, but simplicity often gains a complexity within pop music. In consecutive verses the narrator asks God if he can go back in time to dissuade Kurt Cobain from committing suicide, assassinate Hitler and take Christ from the cross. God tells him he would only ask for a record deal, fall under Hitler’s spell and succumb to the decadence of the 1930s German high-life and stand and stare without acting.

          God said Time
          Time belongs to me
          Time’s my secret weapon
          My final advantage…

          I knew I was beaten
          And that now was all I had
          God Said No

In the main, however, Bern’s lack of identity as a lyricist and singer is a problem. His voice is strikingly reminiscent of Elvis Costello, (astonishingly so as he sings ‘Sometimes I feel like an experiment’) and he seems to put on a Dylan impression midway through ‘Sweetness’. Yet when he speaks in his own voice on the overblown album closer ‘Thanksgiving Day Parade’ his conviction audibly fails and smacks of over-acting.

‘Black Tornado’ also reaches new heights of navel-gazing; who cares whether
Bern has ‘been waking later and later’? The number of portraits on the cover suggests that he thinks he’s pretty great.

The string of ‘you said’s and ‘maybe’s on the album indicates an inability to transmute experience into thought; like the exhortation on the cover to ‘dread nothing’, one does not believe he knows what he is talking about. ‘I will only eat rice from now on’ he sings simplistically after being inspired by a Chinese couple in ‘Rice’. One doubts his spur-of-the-moment promise to ‘meditate every day’. 

 ‘Albuquerque Lullaby’ is another pretty track based on a repetitive riff let down by generic lyrics about how ‘at the bottom of the ocean / you might find a pearl.’ ‘Black Tornado’, which features horribly cumbersome drumming, nowhere approaches the skill of ‘there’s calm in your eye’ from Neil Young’s ’Hurricane’. Instead, as in the risible ‘Alabama Highway’, we have a list of evocative words; ‘It’s a Budweiser, Budgetel, Bukowski kind of night’. That said, his band ‘The International Jewish Banking Conspiracy’ are reminiscent in sound to The Heartbreakers, and the songs make similarly good driving music, name-checking American states.

Another bar to his credibility is his well-meaning ‘dread nothing’ philosophy mentioned in the sleevenotes which dulls his point. Bern is too positive to speak honestly about dread or real life and, like much political comment by American bands – evident on the recent ‘America: A Tribute to Heroes’ concert – his over-simplicity mars his message. ‘Tape’ misses its target by a million miles. Attempting to subvert the lullaby ‘Hush little baby don’t say a word / papa’s gonna buy you a mocking bird’ to document the gun-culture of America, the result is cheap hyperbole with less impact than the original.

Elsewhere, the opening line of ‘Toledo’ ‘Sitting in the Church of the Holy McDonalds’ is not particularly enlightened compared to a lyric with something to say like ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ by Talking Heads which comments on progress to much greater effect. The 10 minute ‘Thanksgiving Day Parade’, apparently a re-written ‘Desolation Row’ with Michelangelo complaining about ‘losing his funding’, is annoyingly glib, his juxtaposition of art with the modern world clumsy.

Yet there are unforced moments; the title track has a nice pace, and the rhyme ‘I have a dream of a new American Language / one with a little bit more Spanish’ is superb.

On the whole though, both band and lyrics tow the line. Listening to too much of this music results in a biliousness unrelieved by bile’s catharsis.

It takes a few listens for the voice of Grant-Lee Philips, whose Mobilize is his first widely-available solo record since he dissolved Grant Lee Buffalo, to elevate some of the tracks – ‘Humanity’, the wonderful ‘Sadness Soot’ – from the uniform smothering of drum machines and keyboards that weigh down the album.

This is a pivotal album in Phillips’ career and he succeeds in establishing a different sound to Grant Lee Buffalo. He plays every instrument himself which gives a personal edge to the album, but unlike Mark Mulcahey’s intimate and immediate self-performed Fathering, the palette of sounds is limited, more reminiscent of Frank Black’s first solo album after The Pixies and other studio projects The Lightning Seeds. On repeated listens however, the glory of ‘Sadness Soot’ pervades the album and you begin to hear pleasing subtleties such as the sampled chest-slaps on ‘Humanity’. This is an album where it definitely pays to listen on a good system, otherwise it could wash by leaving you wondering what all the fuss was about.

It’s moments like ‘Sadness Soot’ that remind you why Rolling Stone  named Phillips Male Vocalist of the Year in 1994. It is a rush, breathy vocals allied to a catchy melody with a divine instrumental verse in which he hums along to the guitar. It demonstrates what he was reaching for with the album. Almost unique in its blend of strange lyrics and delightful melody,

          Knee-deep in sadness soot
          It’s doing me good

once you come round to Phillips’ style, apparently inconsistent moods such as ‘Damn this bar is thumping / Like Spring released’ make a kind of sense and appear less arch than on paper.

There is a retrospective quality to the song-writing, and not unlike David Gray (not the criticism it appears), they are well-constructed with Phillips harking back to earlier music such as Buddy Holly. ‘See America’, the opening track, references both Simon and Garfunkel and David Bowie.

‘Love’s a Mystery’ and the title track both extend standard metaphors (love as war, love as crime) and the title ‘Like a Lover’ is generic, not specific enough to grab; it could have done with the wit of an Edwyn Collins who does this better, but as ever it’s the classy execution that holds it together and convinces.

‘Lazily drowning/not a care in the world’ Phillips sings. Yet there’s a lot of hidden depth if you submerge yourself in the music.

That said, it will be interesting to witness his concerts in England this year, free from the murk.

                   © Matt Bryden 2002