I’ve been working on getting together a new album for a while now and the other week I was showing my progress to a friend in my kitchen. We listened all the way through my album and then I put on Ethan and the Imaginary Friends’ A Light Tree (in the Key of C). My friend said something along the lines of “dude let’s listen to something else. I’m tired of your vanity parade here. Put on something that’s not made by you.” I was surprised that he couldn’t tell the difference between my album and my old buddy Ethan’s… This was actually what pushed me to write this review – The fact that a casual listener confused Ethan Bartman’s work with my own. It was the first time in a while that I pondered over the existence of a coherent Warsaw, IN sound. Maybe there is some kind of sound that connects Fair Fjola to Pink Balloon Band or Laura K Balke to Ethan Bartman. Maybe there is some kind of faint Kosciusko County music identity. Groups like The Midwest’s Finest are importantly helping to support this community and are actively creating this identity. A community is one of the most important aspects of art and I’m glad the Northern Indiana scene is continually recreating its own.
Now to Bartman’s album. Local legend tells a humble tale of how Bartman’s “A Light Tree” came to be. After spending time working selling corn dogs at county fairs throughout the Midwest, watching over a horse farm somewhere in West Virginia (I think) and working in fast-food, Ethan, one day, came across a spinning tree that shot out beams of multi-colored lights. This little discovery was the starting point of what would eventually become A Light Tree (in the Key of C). Over the course of a few nights Ethan wrote in a dream-filled frenzy the majority of the material that is now on the album.
There is something about this story that is remarkably rural and Midwestern. I think it’s safe to say that the rural Midwest is not really a place known for its vibrant culture. Because of this lack of vibrancy, artists have to go to unusual places to get inspiration. Ethan found his muse in this small “Light Tree”. The sources of creativity in rural northern Indiana are of a different sort than in an urban setting or in other rural places. In urban areas, the sheer number of people and the constantly changing scene create vibrancy. In other rural places, let’s take Southern Indiana for example, things are different. In southern Indiana, artists can draw on the Jazz history of Richmond, IN or the university in Bloomington or the artist colony in Nashville, IN, etc. Rural Northern Indiana also has these kinds of cultural heritage, but they appear to be more difficult to find. And because of this the northern Hoosier’s mind needs to find other sources of inspiration. One begins to notice the small, the overlooked objects. It took nothing more than a silly little spinning “Light Tree” to inspire Ethan to complete his first album. In a place like Warsaw, Indiana, an artist has to play the hand he’s dealt. And with “A Light Tree”, Bartman played his cards well.
The album A Light Tree (in the Key of C) begins with a rather calm track, “(The Ingenious Gentleman) Don Quixote”, it’s tempo is slow and it’s chorus consists of a soothing glissando. And the album goes out with a bang – the last track is a maddened, Delphic, free-form, wailing farewell. Somewhere in between lies the root of what the album captures. At times it is a maddened, surreal experience bordering on insanity and at other times it has concrete figures, places, objects. In this mixture of the dream-like and the reality, any person from rural Northern Indiana finds himself at home. We know at times what Ethan is writing about – i.e. 1) we recognize a small-town hyper-sexual woman in Flashy Flashdance, 2) we accept Bartman’s critique of Warsaw’s attitude towards new, underground music in Miss Mushroom: “They only like old rock songs, just going to get milk and eggs in the town”, 3) we all know the McSpinnies who close out the local bars in a great, stumbling and slurred fashion – but at other times we have no idea what Bartman is talking about. And it is exactly this mix between reality and surreality that makes “A Light Tree” work so well.
Ethan subtly comments on several aspects of Warsaw culture in A Light Tree, but one of the most interesting references he makes refers to what I would like to call the Internet-Age-Rural-Artist dilemma. Yea, I know that name is a bit stupid, but hear me out. Ethan makes a few references to a musician sitting at home alone trying to make music. The first of these references is the opening line of the album “On the bed and strumming loud, a tune that I was humming out to an audience of no one”. And later on in Red Light Syndrome, Bartman notes, “At home in front of a microphone just a bag of bones”. These two quotes to a certain extent represent what the rural musician has become. In a culture where people seemingly only want to listen to “old rock songs [while] just going to get milk and eggs in the town”, where does the new artist fit in? Musicians find themselves with a great number of tools at their disposal (cheap recording equipment, bandcamp, affordable ways to print physical cds), but the question still remains, who are we writing music for? It is unrealistic to think that we will be able to compete with Rihanna on national radio. We can’t relive the bygone Classic Rock days. Are we then only writing and recording to fulfill our own vanity? Do we believe that “there is just something inside that needs to come out”? And if so, who gives a fuck? There are a million videos on youtube that are more entertaining. I think these are questions that each artist must answer for himself, but I encourage all artists stuck in this Internet-Age-Rural-Artist dilemma to write for an audience. Write songs for your brothers, for your friends, for Warsaw, Indiana. But most importantly, write songs for other artists. And let other artists write songs for you. I don’t think this whole art thing makes any sense if we do it in any other way.
I don’t know where you can pick up Bartman’s A Light Tree (in the Key of C), but he’s a friendly guy and you can get a hold of him via his facebook site. Also, Ethan’s a working man, so naturally he’s already got another project underway and it comes out this friday… So be sure to check out his new album Songs of the Dead – “Folk songs for the Zombie Apocalypse” that drops this Friday, December 21st, 2012 on his bandcamp site: ethanandtheimaginaryfriends.bandcamp.com, I know I’ll be checking it out.
December 19th, 2012