It's rare that I review something that's just out of the gate. This is due to my tendency to procrastinate, combined with my eclectic tastes ("bizarre," others agree), a certain required endurance on the part of the artist and the fact that I don't get out much. I remain unimpressed with flash-in-the-pan one-hit-wonders and marvels of modern marketing. I'm not sure exactly what "pop" is, but if Michael Jackson is its king, I want no part of it. Conversely, the full-brained function of singer-songwriters who have the ability to balance the left-brain math of music and the right-brain abstraction of poetry astounds me. Add to this the abilities to accompany oneself on an instrument with particular proficiency, to organize others of similar bent into a cohesive, coherent and creative tribe, then to deliver it all with the impact of a sledgehammer wrapped in velvet and you've got what I call a "five hundred mile" band (the distance I'd ride to see 'em). Martin Jack Rosenblum is all of that and then some. And now he's got a new band together.
Speaking as someone who has much of MJR's discography on my dusty, musty shelves, lemme tell ya; there's a reason. Several reasons, actually. First among these is that MJ's sound is, in many ways, reminiscent of many other singularly exceptional artists; his voice falls somewhere between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, with maybe just a dash of Nick Cave. Armed with his trusty Gibson B-45 12-shooter (among others), his guitar playing recalls Eric Johnson, Duane Eddy and Eric Clapton, but slower and more deliberate. His melodic complexities are reminiscent of Mozart.
Of course, he comes by it honest enough. A guitarist since about forever, he was awarded the first M.A. in Creative Writing ever granted by the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (where he now teaches in the Peck College of Arts) before going on to earn a Ph.D. in Objectivist Poetry. His remains the seminal work on the topic worldwide while, at the other end of his spectrum, his book of Harley-Davidson poems was the first external and non-technical publication to be granted a Harley part number (so if you can't find it at your bookstore, check your dealership). He spent several post-teaching years at Harley HQ on Juneau Ave. as the company's archivist and historian before returning to the classroom, stage and studio. His performance career spans five decades.
The CD is comprised of a half-dozen reputedly unrelated "singles" which together form a formidable and subtly interrelated six-pack, a scant half hour; not long, but few artists could duplicate this collection's intricacy, complexity and originality in an entire tour. The band is a jigsaw origami of several of Milwaukee's most innovative
bands, with a deep folk taproot going back decades to Martin Jack's "Spirit Farm," watered with a deep dark-blues tradition and fertilized from a mixed bag of everything from metal to psychedelia, their sound has evolved and blossomed into a whole new species.
The disc opens with Kiran Vedula's haunting toccata-and-fugue-ish organ work, leading into "Howlin' Wolf Drives Past," the band's ten-minute tribute to the blues legend, a jubilant dirge for one of the greatest grand-daddies of 'em all. Picking up speed and weight, it rumbles along like a '59 Caddy on the edge of an earthquake, all long an' low and Dyna-flow, the background vocals fender-skirting the crescendo as Allen Russell's violin flashes like sunlight on tailfins. What a ride!
Despite its upbeat hootenanny jam opening, "Walking Through" quickly moves into a darker frame of mind, taking a suspicious view of modern life and times. Not expressly an indictment of society or culture (it takes its share of responsibility for the state of affairs) but examines the difficulty of making things right from a perspective that flirts with futility and temps us with the option to keep on walking. This darkness continues through "Choked-Up," riding James Redding's eccentric, shambling rhythms, lyrical resentments and ironies, eventually accelerating into a blast that hits the listener like "the loud report that cuts through prone fog."
Bassist Karl Lerud does some of his best work on "Welded," laying down a foundation for this cautionary tune whose "devil-in-the-details" message traces the root cause of major problems back to a "wrong spark" breaking a weld on a misspelled sign. By the time "we all turn around/ to see what went down" it'll be too late.
Deep, dark and morose in a psychedelic bluesy kind of way, "The Letter," at almost six and a half minutes, taxes the 21st century attention span but is worth the wait. Rich in incongruities ("jackrabbits in the hayloft"), turmoil and frustration, it echoes the clamor of a lonely soul taking the last train to Lost. The final tune, "What You Want" is a Zevon-esque ballad of twisted love and desperation, a mournful yet hopeful tune, bringing a glimmer of light to the dark of the other "singles" in this collection.
It would be a disservice to him to lump all his work and the work of this band together, even under such a broad umbrella as "an ongoing pattern of genius" or "another twist in an ascending spiral of innovation and creativity" (though both are true). This is another curve on the long and arduous path of The Holy Ranger, one which, as all the previous collections have, opens up a whole new vista, each stretching toward a new and radically different horizon. Toss in a handful of Steel Rope Vintage Bottle Rockets and this disc gives "scenic route" a whole new meaning.
This is the music of a band standing in the dust at the side of the Lost Highway, surrounded by the swirling mists of post-intellectual entropy, eyes squinting into the glare of a smoking desolation, but steadfastly refusing to give up on the notion that there is nobility in humankind's struggle to regain our humanity.
If you can't find this at your local CD emporium, check out the website at www.Holyranger.com . Martin Jack and Werewolf Sequence are definitely Five Hundred Milers.
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