Rock and Reprise.net
Sometimes you have to reach into the past to find the best albums of the current year. So it is with The Minnows' 2008 release, Leonard Cohen's Happy Compared to Me. One would expect an album with such a title stacked with musical depression and, admittedly, a few of the tracks lean that way, but like The Minnows' Michael Rafferty said in a radio interview, Leonard Cohen is not all despair and anguish.
Neither are The Minnows. They visit places which, while not brimming with joy, are not the pits of emotional hell. They are more reflections, though at times deep reflections. The lyrics are neither morose nor despondent, rather thoughts and even wonder. Do they work? Oh, yeah.
Dreams opens the album, probably for good reason. A night without sleep, a mind which can't stop thinking. We've all been there, wondering--- usually what if, what is, or why. The more exhausted we get, the deeper we go until we pray for sleep and a morning which hides the ghosts we create. ?I think of life,? Rafferty sings, ?I think of death/I think of Heaven and hell, my mother, my father, the devil and God/I think of babies, children, murder, violence, war and peace/And peace of mind... my peace of mind.? And the whole while, heavily reverbed and chorded guitar builds this soft wall, velvet with layers of sound. The vocal harmonies, way too short, reinforce the mood, and we all float if but just for this short time.
They begin The Wedding with fifties'-style vocals, echoing the street corners of the East Coast cities of the US, but that is not all there is. One can hear a little soul, a bit of rock, maybe more. This is a vocal track and the band is there, but just for background. The voices, by the way, are spellbinding in that while they approach the days of The Belmonts and The Mystics, they stop short. Call it a nod to melody and harmony with respect to the past.
Initially, Roonkin was my favorite track, rocking guitar and keyboards laying groundwork for a hook-laden ride to Popville. The chorus (?Oh no. I forgot my guitar/I don't know how I got this far?), perfectly placed and performed, is pure AM radio to my ears. Pop lives!
Small victories are small victories to people who have everything, but for those whose victories are few and far between, The Minnows hand you Free Man Freeman. In a little over eight minutes, you can live a dream of the past, be it a people's struggle, a past love, a realization of an elusive truth. Mid-tempo and acoustic at the beginning (a bit of Americana as a first course, shall we say?), it tiptoes around a repetitive musical theme which in your ears is not repetitive at all, building to a rolling but mild crescendo before riding into the sunset. That ride lasts for a good four minutes, but one wishes it could go on forever, a modernized and melodic Volga Boatmen-style chorus (no words, just vocal chorus) supported by a relaxed and rhythmic background of violin, harmonica, acoustic guitar, rolling bass, fairly quiet but essential percussion, and a bell--- neither cowbell nor sleigh bell, but Liberty Bell. The United States may think they own it, but freedom and liberty are in the soul and in no one's soul more than one oppressed. Make a movie about oppression, end it with a small victory and Free Man Freeman playing over ending credits and you have a movie worth seeing, if just for that.
These are just a few of the high points. There are no low points. Every song--- each and every single damn one of them--- is solid. Rafferty writes for the ear, my ear anyway, and I hear hit after hit, but the band is what pulls it off. Rafferty has a voice perfectly git to his songs, the band weaves itself around the songs like a cocoon, and I walk away each time I hear the album, wondering what is wrong with a world so ready to not make an effort to find such treasure.
So far, 2009 has been an exceptional year. The Lisa Parade's Finding Flora, The Weaver Twins' Fayre, Amelia Jay's Like a Kite, and now Leonard Cohen's Happy Compared To Me proves that, musically, the music industry is thriving. And forget that The Minnows released this last year. They only recently picked up US distribution through cdBaby and that qualifies it, in my mind, for the 2009 Sweepstakes. They're in the running. Stay tuned for updates.
Frank O. Gutch Jr.