Dan Bern : Drifter (2012, DBHQ)
Drifter is the first Dan Bern album I bought since his 2002 album New American Language, don’t ask me why (I mean why I haven’t bought any of his other ones, not why I bought this one). New… is one of my favourite records and there probably will be a review about it in another blog post at some point.
True to my blog’s motto of only posting about stuff I like a lot, I have to get Drifter’s sole weakness out of the way at the start so I can celebrate its brilliance further on: The sound could be a bit more transparent, it’s rather muddy and often it’s quite hard to make out the various instruments being played, which is a shame as the arrangements are rather good. I realise it is a low-key affair without a large record label providing any financial muscle, but still, I believe, a producer like Joe Henry could have made this album even better than it already is.
But, now to the things to be admired about the album. First of all, and of course the most important thing in music: the songs – which are excellent, with only maybe one exception (‚Carried Away’ I just can’t warm to its Bar room Rock at all – but hey, 1 out of 15 isn’t bad, is it?). I also adore his intelligent lyrics covering a vast range of subjects and places, reflected in the song titles alone, songs about Luke The Drifter a Party By Myself, Raining in Madrid (the one in Spain), Haarlem (‚…not that one, the other one, the one with two a’s, the Dutch one…)‚ Capetown (the one in South Africa) and a Mexican Vacation.
By the time I first listened to the album starting with the first few chords and his expressive, slightly crooked and nasal voice (think Bob Dylan) on album opener Luke The Drifter, it became clear to me that this album will be a good one: A deftly strummed acoustic guitar and imaginative lyrics – maybe not quite in the Bob Dylan, John Prine league, but pretty damn near. 5 1/2 minutes of pure Folk-Rock bliss – at least to this listener’s ears.
Acoustic guitars aplenty, whether strummed or picked, accompanied by a wide variety of instruments such as banjo, trumpet, an autoharp, accordion, cello and a few more are what you can expect to hear used to fine effect on the album.
As I mentioned above, the lyrics are clearly one of Dan Bern’s strengths, take Party For Myself for example, the story of a lonesome dope fiend (,Six in the morning in my room at the Cecil Ninety Four Fifty a week stretches me out a little…’) holding on to his low-key desk job. Raining in Madrid is another fine example of is lyrical skills, not content with endlessly writing about the same old things, but rather being acutely of the now ‚… now that our economy is going to the dogs…’ (I wish he wouldn’t have name checked Rafael Nadal, though) – the music on Raining In Madrid is a lovely, stripped down, strummed acoustic guitar and accordion/background vocals, affair.
Capetown is probably my favourite of the 15 songs on the album. What sounds a bit like an Irish Folk-Punk song (it doesn’t really sound that Irish, maybe I just haven’t listened to too many Pogues songs in my life, if that were possible, that is), all raucous, uptempo and good-natured – a simple tune and a lot of fun (although I can’t help thinking he might regret using the term ‚…and I Googled people’) at some point in the future.
Another highpoint of the album, Mexican Vacation is nicely evoking the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s travels down this part of the world and imagining a world where Mexico and Canada are sharing a border (the USA is gone – imagine that for a moment, will you?) – it has to be described as epic – not in the tired old Post-Rock sense with the usual erupting guitars and such, it’s actually a jaunty, uptempo Country-Rock song, but the story told in the song is definitely epic. I knew from the moment I heard the first few lines ‚Three years before the surface of the earth was uninhabitable…’ that this was something special. The lyrics are dark and apocalyptic, with people holding slaves again, trains with flotation devices underneath their seats and the Atlantic having reached Indiana, and with about 6 minutes long the longest track on the album. Splendid.
There’s a few guest singers on the album I shouldn’t forget to mention, the most prominent of course being Emmylou Harris, she’s used in a melancholic evocation of a, what I take to be estranged, mother and son relationship – which is well thought through, given the age different between her and Dan Bern. The other guest singer is called Mike Viola (I wasn’t familiar with him before), he’s shring the vocals on a tune written by him, Dan Bern and one of my 80’s guitar pop heroes, Marshall Crenshaw – and the songs actually sounds a lot like Crenshaw’s best work on his 1989 album Good Evening.
The album closes with two rather short but gorgeous, folky acoustic songs Love Makes All The Other Worlds Go Round and These Living Dreams.