Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk
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
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
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
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
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.