By Andrew Hertzberg
“I’ll see the world while you stay at home,” opens Shawn Rosenblatt on the latest Netherfriends LP Middle America. Devotees to WCR (or any local music publication really) know of Shawn’s 50 songs 50 states project, in which he gave up any lease-dependent piece of land, traveled to every state in the Union, performed, then wrote a new song as well. "Ambitious" doesn’t even begin to describe the project, but after hitting up Hawaii last April, he completed the endeavor. So now that all is said and done, it’s finally time to eternalize his efforts on wax. Last Spring we got the Angry East Coast EP, but now we’ve got a full album about the middle west summed up in shrouded psych-pop goodness.
As anyone who grew up around here knows, the Midwest doesn’t particularly carry an exciting connotation. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by coasts, the promise of a faster pace and life affirmation. So what does someone who has traveled extensively around the entire country feel about it? “Middle America, you seem to surprise every day,” Shawn sings on "Des Moines, IA" with a Wayne Coynesque gruff falsetto. Likewise, in "Columbus, OH": “Staying here would be the worst thing you could do.” The region that contains all of the in-between places, the God-forsaken highways whose mile-markers can’t pass quickly enough, is actually rather complex, intricate and often inconsistent. The beauty and simplicity of nature and farms can be as malevolent and unforgiving as any urban landscape.
As evident by his nomadism, it would be unfair to take these songs at face value. As Shawn physically moves around, so too do the songs on this album’s state of being change. For example, Shawn’s been playing solo for quite some time, equipped with a guitar, some keys and random percussion that he loops to create a full band sound, and he’s been playing these songs live for quite some time. Lead single "Bloomington, IN," is a relaxed tune that sounds more at home in Beach Boys SoCal than Hoosierland, with its feel-good, sing-a-long chorus “Everybody, everybody wants to have a good time.” But live, Shawn’s had a tendency to speed it up, and that chorus almost becomes commandlike. It’s an interesting dynamic promoting change and spur of the moment emotion, not commonly associated with the region.
There is one consistent between the two platforms, however, which is the layering. The tracks build and build, adding tension, promoting unease, before taking it away, breaking down, further adding to the ominous tone, because you know, you just know, it’s going to come back up. The question is: when? The advantage of recording in the studio is expanded selection of instruments: horns, extra voices, and best yet, a full drum kit. This is best adapted in "Chicago, IL," a lament of leaving behind the perfect girl for a life on the road.
Of course, Shawn is not without a sense of humor. Many of the lyrics pertain to his self-appointed troubadour lifestyle and the absence of being able to identify with a particular location, while simultaneously (and contradictorily) relating to all. But in "Rapid City, SD," he recognizes that duhhh, this was all his choice: “Privileged problems, I’ve got privileged problems.” For all of the laments about maybe having been someone better ("Madison, WI") or the pathetically small crowds he’s played for ("Omaha, NE"), it’s really not that bad. He’s gonna be on food stamps for the rest of his life, but he gets to write his sad songs for us to listen to.
Wanna see what I mean about the live shows? See Shawn dance like James Brown at the record release show is tomorrow night at the Empty Bottle (10 PM, $8, 21+). Secret Colours and Vamos open it up. Shawn’s also DJing the Whistler on Saturday night (10PM, 21+, no cover) before a tour revisiting many of the places of inspiration for the album.