Here is a local band that’s been around for so long we’re surprised they haven’t recorded more. More than a half dozen years have passed since they released a full length disc, In the Winepress, and broke up for a while. By the time they first played here at Hymie’s a couple years ago, they’d recruited Matt Engelstadt as a new bass player and already started playing some of the songs on their new album, out this weekend, as well as a great tune they’d released on a split single with the Knotwells.
They’ve never sounded as good as on The Future Was a Long Time Ago, a great album a long time coming. This “little band from Minneapolis” has always had a charming punk rock-ish interpretation of country music, which is highlighted here with shorter, quicker arrangements and exceptionally catchy hooks. On In the Winepress, Jon Collins’ lyrics about drinking and disenfranchisement had been so dense you’d have to read along to follow them (and find your glasses to do that), these eleven new songs are cleverly concise, if still about the same subjects.
The songs seem seeped in the working class worries of what we’re now calling the “Great Recession,” which for a lot of us didn’t really end when the guv’ment saved the banks. Or something. As cheerful as the band sounds, there’s an oppressive sense of dread just underneath the rollicking surface, probably best captured in the concise lament which lent itself to the album’s title:
When the past goes it leaves a big hole
The future was a long time ago
The album opens happily enough with “Salt and Ice,” the first of several songs to highlight dual lead vocals by Collins and fiddler Pamela Laizure. They’ve got a great chemistry here, which reminds us of our favorite songs by This Bike is a Pipe Bomb (one of which is “Of Chivalry and Romance in a Dumpster,” if you’re wondering) and the Gr’ups. Does anybody remember the Gr’ups? They were awesome.
“Salt and Ice”
A few years ago the Brian Just Band told us we got it all wrong when we described their first disc as a “summer record,” and so we’ve avoided giving seasonal tags to albums. That said, it sure seems like The Future Was a Long Time ago is set in a Minnesota winter, from the romanticized “Salt and Ice” to the way bus windows fog up late at night. It also seems like the themes in Collins’ lyrics are connected to songs like Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America.” Here it’s contemporary crises like the impact of foreclosures on neighborhoods like ours, and the failed evacuation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, but like Scott-Heron did in the seventies, Collins pairs politics with personal experience. “Banks” is a particularly successful example of this.
Classic country music and punk rock have a complicated past, a stormy relationship going all the way back to CBGB’s, which really isn’t so strange when you think about it: both often focus on the feelings of the disenfranchised, especially those oppressed by economic conditions. There’s not so much difference between Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” and the tattered jeans Mike Ness wears with shame in Social Distortion’s “Story of my Life.” The dead man’s shirt in Chokecherry’s “Good Times (Are Over)” might end up on the same thrift store rack.
“The Future Was a Long Time Ago”
Chokecherry sounds better than ever throughout the album, which was recorded by Matt Castore at his A Harder Commune Studio. Instead of the flat, lo-fi sound of lots of folk-punk bands (like, again, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb) they’re recorded and mixed the way you’d want a good ol’ fashioned punk rock album to sound. Drummer Chris Schuck, who has been with Collins and Laizure all along, sounds great, which you can tell just listening to “Salt and Ice” up above. And two tracks feature the one and only Ross Fellrath of Whiskey Jeff’s Beer Back Band on steel guitar. He adds a particularly countryfied atmosphere to the title track. One thing we especially love about the album is how Laizure’s fiddle sounds, sometimes very country as on that song, and other times heavy, in the style of the 90s English band the Levellers as on “Downtown Dogs.”
Last week we drank a beer for breakfast and wrote about Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy with a little wrought self-depreciation. Sometimes it feels like we’re just a few years from obsolescence — small business seems doomed in this country, especially something like a neighborhood record shop. All the while we’re not getting any younger, we know what Collins’ means when he sings about the cold wind and the “after-work bus with the windows fogged up, [when] you feel yourself growing older every day.” But that song doesn’t end with that gloomy image — instead Collins and Laizure remind us that “It’s alright.”
Chokecherry has two shows this weekend to celebrate the release of The Future Was a Long Time Ago. The first is at the Seward Cafe on Saturday night with an awesome bill of groups: Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band, Diver Dress and Up the Mountain Down the Mountain. The second is Sunday afternoon here at Hymie’s, where they’ll be joined by Wisconsin folk musician Jake Duda. Every little detail you could ask for can be found here.