ANDREW MORRIS & FRIENDS – The Great Corn Detasseling Album

Impressions from Steve Henn:

I can’t stand it when critics criticize music, poetry, fiction, whatever, for what it is not rather than for what it is, which is why this guy’s review of Andrew Morris’s formidable paean to the cultural oblivion known as northern Indiana (http://www.nuvo.net/MusicBlog/archives/2011/09/30/review-andrew-morris-great-corn-detasseling) annoys me.  I don’t think Morris’s songwriting skills can be jettisoned simply because his recording process isn’t slick enough, because no engineers were paid to package him in a more palatable way – to who? the musical sophisticates of Marion County? I came of age in the early 90s, an era known for Kurt Cobain’s raggedy voice and the lo fi recording techniques of Guided By Voices; to me, Robert Pollard’s poorly recorded wail of “she runs through the night / as if nobody cares / she screams and she cries / and ignores all the stares / she wants me to come / but I’ll never go in there” in “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” can never be equaled in a way I’m sure Bob Dylan’s “how does it feel / to be on your own?” can never be equaled to a listener who grew up in the 60s, in a way whatever screamo band or some other sub-sub-sub genre of non-corporate rock (all of which was dubbed “indie” in the 90s) speaks to today’s teenaged music fans. My point is, for someone whose first great epiphany about how magical good songwriting can be came at 19, when I first heard GBV’s Bee Thousand, the dirtier the recording process, the better.  There’s more passion in the raw voice and the missed notes in a lo-fi homerecording of a serious songwriter than in 1000 slickly produced or autotuned radio hits, and passion, ladies and gentlemen, is what Andrew Morris gives us in The Great Corn Detasseling Album.

I should pause here for a disclaimer. Morris is a former student of mine who has reviewed both a book of poetry I wrote and an album on which I played drums, here, on General Thad.  You might assume I’ve got about as much journalistic integrity in critiquing his work as the 700 Club does in endorsing Rick Perry for President.  Maybe that’s true; hell, I don’t know. As Morris himself told me, if incest was good enough for the monarchies of medieval Europe, it’s good enough for us. (He’s been to college.)  I’m going to run through all the songs and give you my impressions and ultimately encourage you to find a copy of the album.  Look, there’s a helluva lot worse crap out there you could be listening to. Ever hear of Sugar Ray? Awful. Their lead singer took a job as an anchor for Entertainment Tonight, eventually, probably because he ran out of things to say that weren’t scripted for him.

I enjoy listening to the album. Maybe I should start with that. And it’s not because he ripped off the title from a poem that appears in Unacknowledged Legislations. The first track, “Indiana O Indiana” starts with the faux hesitation of the first line, but quickly the mandolin-and-guitar romper fills with the whoops and hollers of Morris and his musical compatriots.  It’s not so much the lyrics that click in this one – they’re serviceable, but not fantastic – but the harmonized voices and some blazing, sloppy mandolin solos that make you feel like you just stumbled out of the only bar in Etna Green at 3 a.m. and maybe you should call your best bud from high school, get him out of bed to come pick you up, rather than slide your Chevy Nova into a cornfield in your inebriate state and fall asleep over the gearshift. Another disclaimer: that never happened to me. It’s a slightly extended metaphor.

Track 2, “Old Brown River,” is much more impressive lyrically, even moreso when delivered in Morris’s emphatic Hoosier crooning: “Old brown river / can’t you alter your flow, alter your flow / I don’t think I like the way you choose to go” might not look all that special on the page, but there’s enough of a hook in the guitar line that, when married with the vocal delivery, sounds just right.  A short electric guitar solo over the acoustic rhythm is also a nice touch in the last third of the song or so.

With “The Trite Call to Arms Song” I’m going to claim that Morris is doing too much overthinking in his songwriting. With his use of the world “Trite” in the title he’s pretty clearly indicating that he finds the sentiment of the song’s speaker rather asinine.  I’m a fan of political satire, have gotten plenty of mileage out of it in poems, but Morris’s implicit critique of the speaker of the poem is too pat, and at times I can’t figure out if he means “you’re really not free when the only sides / are left and right” or if he’s holding that up as a simplistic underanalysis of contemporary politics.

The best thing about “Keep Your Feet on the Carpet” is Samantha Garber’s French horn and the synth accents.  It’s a song worth listening to but really functions as more of a prelude to “Grandma” (which Morris helpfully indicates in his lyrics and liner notes is “for my grandma”), which presumably tells the story of his grandma coming home to Warsaw from Flint, Michigan to have a baby.  Her father, in Warsaw, is ill, and the song reaches an emotional crescendo when she tells the nurse “take the baby to my dad” and the nurse says “I wish I could, but the Lord giveth / And the Lord taketh” – surely a sentiment anybody raised in a church in northern Indiana (and most of us are) has heard before, but something Morris riffs on vocally at the end of the tune before it expires in a jumble of rapid guitar strumming.

I’ve got to warn you, the next track, “When I was Five,” is a downer.  It’s not poorly written. But there are 3 dead animals, two of them pets, in the song, and an audience Morris addresses with the ending lines “but I’m not so strong now / like I used to be before / because when I lost you / I lost so much more.”  Touching song; haunting vocal delivery.

The tone changes rather abruptly on “Meth Head,” my favorite track on the album, in which Morris muses “everybody’s reading the paper / saying ‘Goddamn another meth head!’ / but nobody’s asking any questions / like, for example, ‘why we got so many meth heads?’”  It’s anchored by a bouncy banjo line, and is an ironically playful estimation of the local meth problem that some see as the scourge of Kosciusko County.

“Curse” is written in layers of guitar, Jared Boze’s trombone, and piano, and it exemplifies what Morris and his coplayers do so well on so many songs on the album.  Rather than settle for simply guitar and voice, Morris mixes in a few additional instruments, adding depth to tracks that might sound a little thin without an extra element or two.  The trombone compliments vocal and recording styles that make “Curse” sound like an old blues recording, as Morris tells the story of Mathew Springer, the first white man to build a house in Warsaw, who, in the tune at least, is cursed by an Algonquian Indian, a curse that carries on to this day in the “outward exuberance and inner pain / methamphetamines and a brain drain” that the local population continues to negotiate.

From L to R: Alex McRae, Andrew Morris and Jared Boze busking (2011)

“Coyote Hunt” is the story of Morris going out to shoot with an unidentified old man, and Morris’s moment of hesitation when a female coyote and “her two kids” are flushed from the woods.  Morris, or the speaker of the song at least, stifles his inner objection and raises the gun to shoot, because, as he says in the song “I want to be like you, old man.”  On a side note, Morris can identify his rhetorical strategy in the last few lines of the verse as a polysyndeton thanks to the careful attention he paid to lessons on classical rhetorical devices in AP English 12 at WCHS.  Thank God he had good English teachers. Without them, he’d probably be less functional as a human being.

“Walnut Creek” is interesting lyrically.  Morris’s phrasing and delivery is solid, and the story the song tells is an interesting fabrication of local legend, the speaker claiming that the tears of a young woman whose beau left town for good “became Walnut Creek,” a Warsaw landmark not far from the old farmhouse where perhaps the greatest of Warsaw artists, the Devil’s Dictionary author and black humorist Ambrose Bierce, grew up.

“Ledge” is an absolutely fantastic tune.  Five lines of lyrics and the repetition of “you lie on my ledge, lie on” with an absolutely perfect backing vocal track that enriches Morris’s lead vocal. In fact I shouldn’t go without saying that Morris has a talent for phrasing and delivery when singing.  There’s a quality in his voice equal to other singers who do a lot with natural talents that are not overwhelming, artists like Bob Dylan or Robert Pollard or Liz Phair who may not be pitch perfect, but who know how to marry what they’re saying and how they’re saying it well.  I’m not saying the album is Highway 61 Revisited for the new decade, but it’s a talent that deserves a mention, and that elevates songs that might otherwise sound pretty average to a higher level of competency.

Despite that, “Barstool Prophets” is a swing and a miss on the album.  The lyrics are a bit heavy-handed in their assertion that “this town that burns around us is a goddamn living hell” (a contention I personally disagree with, having come back to Warsaw to work and raise my kids), although there are some nice lines here and there, such as ‘the only thing we ever do is try to pretend that we’re wise / So then we all wind up opening our mouths more often than our eyes.”  Musically, the flourishes of noise that back the guitar and vocals obscure the lyrics too often in a song that’s all about the story Morris is trying to tell of sitting on a barstool, talking with a drinker, musing about “why this town haunts my brain.”  As for the guitar line, it sounds like a bunch of rather nonspectacular strumming. There’s no hook to carry the words through.

Morris ends the album with “Empty House,” an appropriately quiet, simple song about sitting alone at home during a thunderstorm.  The guitar sounds different than most of the other songs, more picking than strumming, his voice raised just above the level of a whisper as he repeats the lines “nothing I want more than you / empty house, empty rooms” to end the album. The Great Indiana Corn Detasseling Album by Andrew Morris and friends, a simply recorded but well-done tribute to his often-vexing hometown of Warsaw, Indiana, is worth repeat listening.

You can find it here: http://stumpythematchseller.bandcamp.com/album/the-great-corn-detasseling-album

November 27, 2011

Steve Henn

LAURA K BALKE – Rumors and Legends

In March of 2011, shit was about to hit the fan for Andrew Morris. The sun was starting to set and I was sitting on this balcony in Germany drinking a beer, while this Estonian dude named Feliks shaved my head. The next day I flew to China.

This was one of those critical moments in my life – my hair was buzzed off. There was no going back. My hair wouldn’t grow back for another couple of months and I was going to be stuck in China whether I liked it or not. Nonetheless, it was the beginning of the wildest adventure I’ll probably ever have.

Laura K. Balke shaved her head a little while ago too. And shortly thereafter she began a crazy adventure. The former hairdresser worked on finishing up her newest album Rumors and Legends (to be released on Friday Nov. 18) and hit the road. The tour has taken her from Iowa to New York, but it comes to a close back here in Indiana, where Hoosiers are looking forward to seeing Balke and hearing her latest work.

Balke is a hard-working artist with a strong DIY mentality. She’s spent a lot of time playing in Bloomington, in Indianapolis and in the toughest terrain of them all: Northern Indiana. She writes her songs, manages her tours and even hand-made the cases of her last record Souvenirs. This kind of work ethic spills over onto Rumors and Legends and you can hear this simply in the sound of the record. Balke wound up performing dozens of takes and brought in the experimental-electronica musician Jon Autry to help record, mix and produce the album. Autry did a masterful job: the full drums, subtle synth orchestration and clean guitars, banjos, pianos and strings make for an exceptional listening experience.

Rumors and Legends tells a wide variety of stories. There are songs of self-scrutiny (“Turn the Key”), chance encounters with good love (“Two Ships”, “Sometimes”), failing relationships (“I Can’t”) as well as discourses on family (“Limberlost”, “As Small As We Are”). But the album Rumors and Legends, starts off ambitiously with one of Western culture’s greatest Legends: that of Homer’s Illiad.

The opening track “Achilles” references the particular point in Achilles’ life when his mother, Thetis, dipped the baby Achilles into the river Styx. The immortal waters were supposed to make Achilles invincible, but one small part of Achilles’ heel (the Achilles tendon) was not touched by the water and thus years later Achilles would die in battle because of an arrow wound to this part of his leg. Balke cleverly plays with this mythology in “Achilles” (“I’ve been so careful to keep / my heel safely in my shoes”), but turns the fatal arrow of the ancient Greek mythology into an undefined “you”. This “you” presumably refers to a lover. But unlike the arrow from Homer, which leads to Achilles’ death, Balke’s “you” is a “wonderful” thing, which causes Balke’s head to “spin”. Love for Balke is not necessarily a deadly arrow, but it is something that is confusing and she delves into the love’s confusion in the rest of the album.

In this way, Balke intelligently begins Rumors and Legends with a comparison between herself and one of the oldest figures in the Western artistic tradition. This is a bold comparison for a singer from Indiana to make, but it nonetheless expresses how relatable Balke’s songs are to even the most ancient of western stories. The songs that follow “Achilles” reflect with sincerity the difficult and confusing aspects of the most elemental of human feelings. Feelings that the ancient Greeks encountered thousands of years ago come back to life in Indiana via the words of Laura K. Balke.

Rumors and Legends reaches its climax with the masterful 7th track “Limberlost”. It tells the story of a daughter and mother searching for the house of Indiana author Gene Stratton-Porter. Stratton-Porter, a famous female novelist (A Girl of the Limberlost [1909]) and nature-lover, had lived and worked in her Noble County home, “The Cabin in Wildflower Woods”, in the early 20th Century. As the mother and daughter of Balke’s song attempt to find Stratton-Porter’s house, the complexities of their relationship unfold. The mother, a devout Christian, conflicts with the daughter, a woman “of this world”. In some kind of wonderful way, their search into Indiana’s past, their rediscovery of an Indiana artist helps the two figures heal a conflict of generations and religions. Can a search into Indiana’s past or Indiana’s art help heal the conflicts of today? This is difficult to say, but Balke seems to suggest that at least in some way, this kind of home-searching can help.

I have to continue to discuss the form of “Limberlost” a bit, because it is just brilliantly structured. At the beginning of the song we hear opening minor-key chords, a traveling-style folk guitar finger-picking rhythm and a galloping drum beat. This musical style, gives the opening of the song a feeling of searching, a feeling of adventure, which precisely matches the lyrics:

We took to the highway with a county map in hand

It’s been years in the making and we are executing plans

You read aloud from the Keeper of the Bees

As I try to focus my eyes on the road ahead of me

Shortly thereafter, the music shifts to a major-key sound, with strings supporting the chords. This creates a much more positive feeling. And Balke excellently incorporates a change toward more positive lyrics during this chorus.

We can have it all if you will just give me time

Cause Mama, Mama this world is mine

The lyrics and music of “Limberlost” compliment each other in a way that can only be described as superb.

The album continues after “Limberlost” to conclude with “Retreat”. A song that can be seen as a discussion Balke is having with herself: “If I can write just one song I want to sing / I can rest in peace”. This song is a nice conclusion to an album filled with a lot of self-searching.

In all, Rumors and Legends is a fantastic sounding album, with catchy melodies and relatable material. Balke does a nice job with nearly every song, but hits the Jackpot with “Limberlost”. “Limberlost” truly stands out about the rest of the tracks due to its execution and its compelling story about one of Northern Indiana’s forgotten heroes. I can’t say enough about this track “Limberlost”, it is one of the best tracks I’ve heard all year. There are also a couple of songs, which don’t really do it for me. For example “Sticks and Stones” seems a bit too childish, with its lullaby guitar and its lines like “Peroxide washes the germs away”. Sometimes the songs’ subjects seem to be a bit generic, but overall, Rumors and Legends is a solid album. Balke worked hard to do this album properly. I haven’t even begun to mention the fantastic album artwork Balke has put together. I could have probably written an entire article on the album art alone, but that’s for another time. There’s also the fact that her album can be bought with a corresponding hardbound book. And she hid golden tickets around Kosciusko County, which if found will grant the holder a free entrance to her show in Pierceton on Friday Nov. 18th.

Balke is writing some of the most accessible music in the underground Indiana scene today and she’s working hard at creating creative packaging too. She should serve as a real inspiration for other young singer-songwriters from N. Indiana like Ivory West and others. Check her out tomorrow (Thursday Nov. 17th) at Rachael’s Café in Bloomington (I’ll be there!) or on Friday (Nov. 18th) see her at the Old Train Depot in Pierceton. Nov. 18th is the official release date of Rumors and Legends. Pick up a copy at her live show or get it online.

http://laurakbalke.bandcamp.com/releases

http://laurakbalke.com/

http://www.facebook.com/laurakbalke

November 16, 2011

Andrew Morris

INVISIBLE ROBOTS – Sunday Beer

Sunday. It’s that special day of the week when the kids of Warsaw, Indiana dress up in sweaters that their grandmothers bought them and go out to eat at the Pizza Hut in the K-Mart shopping plaza. The kids who aren’t at Pizza Hut are either smoking weed while laughing at that “METH IS DESTROYING OUR COMMUNITY! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?!?!?!” commercial on 107.3 or are sitting at the Boathouse Restaurant, dressed in skinny-jeans and a Christian-hardcore band’s t-shirt eating an 8 dollar French onion soup as an appetizer.

Beer. It’s that special invention, which has been used for many purposes. In the old days monks used it to help themselves get closer to God while they fasted. Today, if you go to the Time-Out Inn, you’ll see a more modern beer in action as it inspires people to put quarters into pinball machines. Maybe there is something about the neon flashes of the 1980’s game machine, which momentarily lights up people’s lives, something about the 8 bit sound blasting out of those speakers, which only becomes apparent to a person after they’ve had a few PBR’s in them. Maybe there is an aspect of God, which can only be found after throwing back a few beers.

These two ancient inventions of man – Sunday and Beer – come together in Invisible Robots’ debut album “Sunday Beer”. The “Psychedelic Art-Rock Superstars”, more commonly known as Invisible Robots, have been stomping around the grimy underbelly of the Warsaw music scene for a little while now, often frequenting Mad Anthony’s. To get a feel for what kind of vibe Invisible Robots dish out look at how the band has described “Sunday Beer”. On their Facebook page, “Sunday Beer” is dubbed a “magnum or at least standard condom sized opus”. I think this quote illustrates the sort of humor the band achieves with their dirty, lo-fi, folk-rock style.

Invisible Robots

The sound of the album is downright filthy. Everything was recorded on a 4-track in some basement and Nate White’s vocals sound like a mix between the Tom Waits of Mule Variations and a broken down tractor: metallic, puffing and raw. This recording style and vocal delivery could scare the faint of heart away, but when one begins to dig down into the lyrics, the musical atmosphere surrounding the subjects seems to fit quite well. The aura is grimy, the drums are nasty and distorted, the electric-acoustic guitar and the bass bite. This kind of atmosphere has an interesting punk-folk-rock kind of feel to it. For those listeners who dare to truly listen, “Sunday Beer” is a funny attack on everything you thought you knew about the disgusting basements of rural Northern Indiana.

Perhaps what people notice almost immediately with “Sunday Beer” is how difficult it is to understand the vocals. In fact, in preparing for this analysis I had to go through each song and attempt to transcribe out the lyrics into my notebook (Invisible Robots lyrics). If you look through my notes you’ll see that there are some lyrics I just couldn’t figure out. This muddled delivery of the lyrics is something that can be seen in punk (e.g. the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Crass, etc) and thus helps to give “Sunday Beer” a similar in your face feel to it.

While trying to understand the lyrics (which are first-rate btw), the listener gets the feeling that something really incredible and unique is going on. But because the lyrical delivery is difficult to make out, you just never know 100% what that unique thing actually is. It makes the listener want to keep coming back for more, with the hope that maybe at a different time, on a different day, all of the superb lyrics will be revealed.

The brilliance of the lyrics really stands out in a few songs like “Diner with the Flystrip Above the Grill”, “Disconnected Buttered Toast” and “We are Invisible Robots”. “Diner with the Flystrip Above the Grill” describes a scene almost as disgusting as the sound of the song, with a chef who’ll “cook you up an omelet and then shove it in your face”, a handicapped waitress without any sort of job or retirement security, and a smoker who doesn’t give a damn if it harms the kids eating at another table. This great scene serves as a microcosm for the dysfunction of small-town life in Northern Indiana. The diner is dirty, like the public lakes of Kosciusko county, and the average customers are absentminded and simply “listen to the weather”. These kinds of customers can I guess be compared to the citizens of Warsaw who are so far removed from any sort of major development in the outside world, that the term “the Arab Spring” is as foreign as the Chinese Language. “Diner” is one of those all-too rare songs, in which the musical atmosphere and lyrical descriptions come together and create something outstanding. And furthermore the song’s themes and criticisms lend themselves to a great amount of worthwhile interpretation.

But to look into Invisible Robots’ lyrics only through a socio-critical lens would leave out a great deal of the band’s humor, which is one of the most endearing qualities of this album. Look at the song “We are Invisible Robots” for example. I can’t help but laugh every time I hear the line “Believe in us like Santa Claus / like Isaac Newtown’s earthly LAAAAWWS!”. The delivery of the word “laws” turns a fundamental set of scientific laws into a ridiculously exaggerated cry. Also juxtaposing the childish belief in the fictional figure of Santa Claus with the scientific reality of Isaac Newton dances with absurdity and is just simply hilarious.

The album, through its lo-fi production and its lyrical themes, also really demonstrates the small-town Northern Indiana identity. One song, which directly ties the band to Warsaw, Indiana is “Zebra Lady”. Nearly anybody over the age of 20, who grew up in Warsaw, Indiana knows exactly who the Zebra Lady was. She was an eccentrically dressed old lady who drove around Warsaw, Indiana on a scooter with a stuffed Zebra tied to it. When she died in February of 2011, the Times-Union published a nice little article about it (http://www.timesuniononline.com/main.asp?SectionID=2&SubSectionID=232&ArticleID=53316&TM=7703.328). Invisible Robots’ homage to the Zebra lady is, much wilder than the “nice” article from the Times-Union. “Zebra Lady / Make me Gravy / Give me Rabies / Raise my Baby”. Invisible Robots had a good time making these songs and the fun humor really shines through.

There is much more humor sprinkled throughout the rest of the album particularly in songs like “Crazy Girls Can’t Hold Their Liquor” and “Mr. Man with the Florida Tan”. But at other times, the humor seems to move into a deeper realm, where social problems and fundamental frustrations with small town life break through. “In the Boring Bar” humorously travels through boredom and surrealism, but at the end of the song he is “in a crypt: A tomb-like bar” where his “soul is dry”. In a similar way, the song “Psych Ward” is very funny, but subtly adds lines of discontentment, which can lead one to interpret the song as a metaphor for the small-town identity.

In all, Invisible Robots have created a smart, funny and dirty album with their debut release “Sunday Beer”. Although some songs on the album are long and too repetitive (e.g. “Canned Reactions, Static Factions”, “I’d like to go to Delaware” and “Zebra Lady”), overall the themes and the gritty sound of the album are very well done. It is also a shame that some of the lyrics are difficult to decipher, because the listener feels like he’s missing out on something brilliant. But perhaps this is a kind of symbol for the Warsaw artistic scene: it is at times difficult to get to the bottom of, but there are important things going on.

Check out Invisible Robots on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Invisible-Robots/171613096201159

And get “Sunday Beer” on iTunes, Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Sunday-Beer-Explicit/dp/B005EX5JSG) or for the cheapest option ($6.75) go to their CDbaby site (https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/invisiblerobots)

November 6, 2011

Andrew Morris