I still remember the first time I heard Dan Bern. It was back in 2002 at one of the computer labs at Purdue. I was no longer a student, but I would go and log in with my friend Jeremy’s info and download ridiculous amounts of music. I discovered a lot of things there: Bright Eyes, Har Mar Superstar, MC Paul Barman, and too many more to recount here. I never found any full albums by Bern, just random live versions of his songs recorded by fans. At the time the one that stuck out most was called “Song To Woody By Bob From Dan To Bruce.”
It was a hilarious tune where he took the stories of Bob Dylan visiting a dying Woody Guthrie in the hospital and making up a fictional account of Bern sneaking into Bruce Springsteen’s home to have the same kind of visitation. Of course Springsteen isn’t on his death bed in the song and he kicks him out. That was my first impression of Bern, and I loved it.
From that time time to now Dan Bern has remained a relative unknown to most people. He got a bit of a bump a few years ago when he contributed to the songs written for the movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (most notably “There’s a-Change a-Happenin’I Can Feel It”). He also penned a couple Aldous Snow songs for Get Him To The Greek.
After spending a few albums plugging in and rocking a bit more, Bern returns to his roots on Drifter, his first original full-length in three years. Needless to say he’s grown as a writer and performer in the decade since I first became aware of him.
In his earlier days Bern’s voice was a nasally whine. He played up all of his similarities to Dylan to great benefit. Sometime along the way he found his own way of singing and got a boost of confidence. His words are more pointed now instead of the sometimes meandering warble of his early records.
The song that popped for me the most in my initial spin of Drifter is “Carried Away.” It starts out like a Sticky Fingers-era Stones song, but only for the opening bars. After that it reminds me much more of Wilco somewhere between A.M. and Being There. It’s one of the few songs that features electric guitar heavily, but it’s absolutely integral here. This might be the most mainstream tune I’ve ever heard by Bern, but he doesn’t sacrifice writing quality to broaden the appeal.
As much as I love that song, I think that the duet with Emmylou Harris, “Swing Set,” is a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s a snoozy, contemplative ballad that thinks over a parent and child’s memories drifting away as the kid gets older and the relationship that was so close has become less important. Maybe it holds a deep meaning for Bern, but I didn’t really connect with it as written. Good vocal performances from Harris and Bern, but overall not a great song. A rare miss for Bern.
Luckily he redeems himself a couple songs later with “Mexican Vacation.” It’s a not quite post-apocalyptic tale of a dystopian future where the world is mostly underwater due to climate change. In the words, Bern creates a cinematic vision to behold. Cars underwater, acid rain in the hills of Pennsylvania, and mole people all make appearances. It’s his usual sly wit and picturesque storytelling that make a lot of his songs work, and this one is a great example of that.
I’m a fan of Drifter, but I think being a fan going in helps. If you listened to Dan Bern at the beginning of his career and didn’t follow him, I’d suggest giving him another shot. He’s matured greatly over the past decade, both in his writing and in his performance. The nasally young man just trying to get his voice heard is gone and in his place is a true wordsmith and troubadour.
Drifter was released on June 12th, and you can listen to the whole thing for free before purchasing on Bandcamp. His current tour dates are strictly east coast (he was just here in Chicago last month, I believe), but he’s basically been on tour for the past fifteen years so he’ll be making it to your neck of the woods sometime in the not too distant future, I’m sure.
I’ve liked Joe Pug since the first time I heard him sing. We were at Vaudeville Mews in Des Moines to see Josh Ritter play to a packed house of 200 people. When we arrived, Pug was already about halfway through his set. He started singing a song, which I later found online called “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. The song was beautifully written, and he sang it so well-I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him before. After that I went home to seek out whatever material I could find by him. He had two EP’s available so I got both of them. Nation Of Heat has the song I mentioned, and In The Meantime (which is a free download if you join his mailing list) has two great songs: “Lock The Door Christina” and “A Thousand Men.” In 2010 Joe released The Messenger, his first full-length, and it was everything I had hoped for.
One thing that helped The Messenger stand out as a really solid album was the inclusion of a full band on a couple tracks. Joe mainly plays solo, but with that release he started touring with a full band and recording as such. It adds a whole new dimension to his songs, and creates a more complex sound. He still played the majority of the record solo, like “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)” and “Unsophisticated Heart,” but there was room to add more instruments as needed. For his new release, The Great Despiser, Joe Pug has taken the band to the next level.
Some fans may look at this album the way folks did when Dylan went electric and just throw in the towel, calling him a traitor. The truth is, a lot of great folk music can be played with electric guitars, you just need to be open to it. The Great Despiser still features a lot of Joe Pug’s signature string-plucking and soulful lamentation, he’s just doing it in between songs that are fun and more widely appealing.
It’s not perfect. The songwriting isn’t as solid here as it is on his previous efforts. That’s possibly becuase he’s writing for a bigger sound, letting the band make his points instead of his lyrics. When he plays acoustic and alone, the keen observer returns and he pens some really great words. The album does lack some of the intensity that Pug brought to The Messenger, though. I could probably attribute that to the past couple years he’s spent almost entirely on the road.
My favorite song on the new record is “A Gentle Few.” It’s a Cat Stevens-esque lullaby of fatherly advice.
Years that I’ve been through, I’ve met a gentle few
Who have said that they love and they mean it
Others that I met, they’re decent folks I guess
All that they love is achievement
There are certainly a lot of religious overtones throughout The Great Despiser, and this song could easily be interpreted that way. The last verse really gets me with it’s opening line, “Remember in the end/that many of your friends/would rather be dead than uncertain.” It reminds me a lot of the political climate we currently find ourselves in, with fundamentalists unwilling to bend, so sure that what they believe is right and everyone else is wrong.
The title track off the album is one of the most rockiing tunes on The Great Despiser, and it features The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. That might explain some of the Springsteen swagger I felt in the rhythms of the tune. Also featured is my favorite Maine-based producer/pianist Sam Kassirer. Bringing in two heavies like these guys definitely adds some credibility to a record that doesn’t really need anyone to speak for it. I do sometimes wish that the sound was more consistent, though. Either have the whole band playing on every song or do them all solo. Maybe as Joe gets more comfortable writing for a fuller sound, he’ll also be able to excise some of the songs that cut everyone else out.
Any time Joe Pug has new material out, it’s reason to smile. He’s a sharp guy with a lot to say, and I’m more than willing to sit and listen. This is his sixth release since 2008, including a live album recorded right here in Chicago at Lincoln Hall. Part of me wishes he would take a break and give himself some time off. Between touring and recording, I’m guessing he hasn’t had a week to himself in over three years. Another part of me hopes he never takes a break becuase I like knowing that it’s never too long before the next EP or album.
I do fully recommend picking up The Great Despiser. I don’t think that the songwriting matches the strength of The Messenger, but that album was extremely well-written. Expecting a person to match that in such a short time is unfair. The sound is definitely opening up, and Joe seems willing to explore avenues that he wouldn’t have before. I look forward to his continuing maturity as a song creator. This album comes out today, so go get it and then grab all his older stuff as well. You won’t be disappointed.