Monday, September 21, 2009

review: Midtown Dickens Lanterns

Midtown Dickens
Self-released, 2009

I’m a big believer that albums equal seasons, and time, places and context influence the perception of an album almost as much as the album itself. That’s why we’ll get a hundred different top albums of the decade in the next few months.

So, Midtown Dickens has made an autumn record. Because when I think of autumn, I think of long mountain drives with different colored leaves and I think of BANJOS of course, so Midtown Dickens delivers on that one, lucky for me. See the correlation? FALL=MOUNTAINS=MOUNTAIN MUSIC. Yeah, that formula is as easy as pie with ice cream on top. Oh, now I’m thinking DINERS instead of campfire and diners only fit into the summer days and winter nights mythology, so now I’ve screwed this review up.

Midtown Dickens is the mostly the collaboration of Kym Register and Catherine Edgerton with friends added in and they prioritize echoing harmonies and ambient sounds of nature, as if it were recorded in hollow logs or empty slides, see it depends on the context of the CITY or the COUNTRY. RURAL vs. URBAN. I don’t know where the Midtown Dickens ladies live, though it says Durham, and people from Durham are in this urban messy morass, though I know people from the Triangle like to fake it and think they all live in Aerostreams outside of town in the empty fields, but as far as I know, the only ones really do that are the Bowerbirds (okay...I'm sure there are more, but they are probably in Winnebagos).

Midtown Dickens

Midtown Dickens inhabits that space that as people we’re all trying to navigate, the space between nature and urban, life with “postmodern conveniences” and “life in nature” and the musical traditions that go along with it. On this self-released album, their promo copies are handmade envelopes with a simple collage image and typewritten Courier letters. It’s a throwback, but with their unassuming, (anti?)folk banjo-strumming ways their second song “Annihilation” is about a nuclear holocaust or something and the absurdity of what will be missed: “It’s going to be a long, hot nuclear winter, without your lemonade when all that you’ve got a big field and a pile of remains.” Register and Edgerton’s harmonies can be tricky, one is more powerful than the other, the other is meek but passionate (I don’t know whose voice is whose), but together they develop this say-speak sing-song about not only annihilation, but the ghost of cowboys (“Spring”) and turn excellent metaphors about sea life (“The Fish Song”). Also like to rock and swoon to “Old Dogs,” a slow song with a fitting horn arrangement about hitting the road on a cross-country journey.

With support from the tradition-oriented Carolina Chocolate Drops, Midtown Dickens will sound like an impressive but simple light-hearted bluegrass band. Lanterns is mostly a slow-go, not many songs have immediately catchy hooks and if they do they are drawn, way drawn out, like a string of dough that somehow gets longer and longer, and yet no holes emerge. But once the stories and lyrics come into focus on these songs a couple of true American(a?) poets emerge. After I term this an “autumn album” my favorite song is one that reminisces about summer, “The Best Summer Ever.” They sing “it’s the best summer ever, whether or not we know it yet,” which is an ironic take on the endless optimism that our culture puts on the promise of seasons…and here’s where I eat the whole first paragraph. I did screw this review up.

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