Bloomington, Indiana is my hometown. I lived there from 1976 until 1982, and from 1983 until 1990. I graduated both high school and college in Bloomington. In high school and college I was deeply involved in the local music scene, specifically the punk scene. I had friends that played all kinds of music, though, and as I’ve gotten less mercilessly arrogant about what’s good and what’s not my tastes have broadened quite a bit. Whether or not that means I now like pablum is left as an excercise for the reader.
I spent the last five years playing mandolin in an irish rock band, for God’s sake, and I totally, utterly love bluegrass; either of these genres would send me shrieking from the room when I was a teenager. As a teenager, though, I never played music, really; my first band was Modock which ran for 9 months in 1989 and 1990, and I pretty much haven’t stopped playing since.
Which brings me to the subject of this entry. A surprising number of people from that period of my life have retained a professional or casual interest in making music. Among them are Jake Smith and Freda Love. Jake, Freda, and John Strohm were in Antenna together in the early nineties, and before that, John and Freda were founding members, with Juliana Hatfield and Seth White, of the Blake Babies.
Jake and Freda are married and have kids. Jake also plays with my favorite musician of all time, the criminally underappreciated Dale Lawrence of the Gizmos (v2.0) and the Vulgar Botamen. The three of them together have an indie label, No Nostalgia. I’ll do a Dale entry or two eventually, I assure you.
I first recall Jake from a band he was in while he remained in high school, “My Three Sons”; he was the bassist, and absolutely stood out as a very talented musician. He was very open to the antics which we engaged in in that scene, and I recall in particular a five-or-six-person one-off performance by a band consisting entirely of basses. He went on to gigs with the Nids and perhaps other bands, while I think, attending IU. Knowledgeable corrections are welcome.
At any rate, the music that Jake and Freda have made on these three discs (in order from oldest to most recent: “Keep a Secret”, “Come Clean”, and “Distant Relative”) is so good it makes my teeth hurt. The images in this entry link to Amazon for your purchasing convenience, although I’m not getting a cut from Amazon simply because I’m a very lazy man.
My personal favorite of these three discs is “Come Clean”, whch was a major label release on RCA; apprently there were the usual personnel shuffles at the label just after the record came out, and it was never properly flacked, which hurt sales, which led to the band leaving the label. If you have any interest in contemporary music at all, you’ve heard this story a million times.
The music itself is sparely arranged indie-pop, which reflects the midwestern music scene of my youth. In thinking about the sound that emerged from early-eighties punk, new wave, and no wave in the midwest, it’s strange to realize that the music is in fact reflective of what could fairly be described as a midwestern heritage in American music. It’s difficult to put a finger on, but bluegrass, Hoagy Carmichael, John Mellencamp, the Zero Boys, the Vulgar Boatmen, and the Mysteries of Life share an aesthetic which I’m still struggling to describe.
It’s got to do with internalization and limits, I think.
“Stardust” is clearly an individual’s meditation on their environment. Honestly, to me it sounds just like an early-winter evening snowfall along Indiana Avenue by Dunn Wood in Bloomington, directly across the street from the Book Nook in which, legend has it, Hoagy composed the tune. Big, fat, feathery flakes float through the cool dusk air against the brilliance of fall color to smack softly against the sidewalk. A few students hustle along the street to eat eat a sub or buy a record. Woodsmoke and wet leaves linger in the nostril.
(Update: I just remembered that there’s actually another piece called “Snowfall” which is similar in texture and tone to “Stardust” but written by pianist and bandleader Claude Thornhill. Could be my impressions of “Stardust” are derived from “Snowfall”; or maybe Thornhill was thinking of the same things I did when he wrote it. Interestingly, Thornhill’s from Terre Haute, Indiana, and was born in 1909, ten years later than Hoagy.)
Bluegrass is about retooling the most conservative aspects of our musical heritage for use in a modern world via mythmaking about that lost past, a desperate, anxious clutching colored by aggression. That blazing mandolin expresses violence as well as mastery.
Mellencamp’s small-town anthems incorporate some of the views of the defiant, self-defeating rednecks who beat the shit out of me when I was in high school. Fists pumping in the air or on my face, their fearful pride expressed a fear of change, of the outside world altering their familiar landscape of hills, trucks, and Molly Hatchet tunes.
Allow me to clarify that I don’t think the music of Bill Monroe or John Mellencamp is unreflective or badly made; far from it, it’s carefully made music that reflects the artist’s ambitions. What musican doesn’t know that one of their functions is to speak eloquently for the listener?
Mysteries of Life use traditionalist music-making strategies – guitar, bass, drums, and vocal harmonies – to explore self-imposed boundaries of another sort, those within relationships. The songs use physical place and phenomena to express the singer’s emotional point of view: “Rain on the window rolls away, and each drop weighs a ton” (“Come Clean”); “All of the regulars moving away – and I see Maya and Luna waving to me … Maya and Luna across the street / Ooh, the change in the tone of voice; Ooh, did I ever have a choice” (“Maya & Luna”).
These boundaries, a kind of midwestern fatalism, are also present in Dale’s music, especially in the Vulgar Boatmen’s work. I’ll save a detailed discussion of that for my eventual Dale Lawrence entry.
Jake and Freda’s sonic pictures of my hometown are like a visit home for me; the indivdual characters drawn in the songs are not necessarily indivduals that I know personally or specifically, but more like expressions of recognizable characteristics of the people I came of age among, and will naturally love as family until I pass from this world. Additionally, I associate individual songs with specific physical locations and atmospheres in Bloomington: for example, “Hey Kate” is a walk along near-to-downtown South Washington street on a spring afternoon.
I was very happy to see John and Freda when the Blake Babies played here in Seattle not too long ago. What with kids and all, I doubt that there’s much chance of seeing the Mysteries (or for that matter the Boatmen) here soon, but I sure hope I get the chance. Go buy their records.