Just to say it right at the start, I’ve been fortunate to have a friendly and very cherished proximity to Clint Asay and Amy Benezuartea, the two principles behind Clint, Michigan, for the past several years. At first I thought this should disqualify me from writing about them, but now I don’t think so. While originally a tangential relationship through common music friends in Brooklyn, we became much closer for having shared a 10-seater passenger van and 4-to-a-room hotels over the course of a two-week tour.
They were the opening act on a three-band bill that I was a part of, starting at 2007’s CMJ Festival at New York’s Living Room and traveling through Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Athens, among other cities, before finishing up as the early show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, a short ride through the tunnel from where we started. Assay and Benezuartea were playing as a duo, switching between banjo and acoustic guitars, mixing in harmonica and harmonizing together beautifully for their entire set. At that point, every song was still new to me, and getting to hear them nightly, performed in front of audiences ranging in size from what memory serves as an empty bar in Nashville to considerably less than empty at Chicago’s Hideout, is a cherished musical memory.
This was all before they’d made any real progress on the recordings that would become their first album, Hawthorne to Hennepin. The songs were all in place, but you could still hear them developing from night to night. Having witnessed those performances, I felt developing a record from them seemed like a dicey proposition. How would they attempt to put across on a recording these songs that seemed to be so perfectly pitched when delivered by just two people playing together to a (hopefully) quiet club that might hold 75 people on its best night? The whole impermanence of the thing seemed to be entirely part of the point. Why risk it to the harsh imperfections and learning curves inherent to the recording studio? Why run the risk of capturing a less than wholly perfect representation of the song, for no better reason than simply trying to get a record out?
Happily, the album succeeds. None of the magic of that early string of performances that I loved so much is lost. Adding piano, drums, accordion, ukulele, strings, mandolin, and layered harmonies, the songs only gain in translation. On paper, with hushed vocals, a preference for acoustic instruments over electric ones, and songs favoring emotions that feel closer to heartbreak than contentment, Hawthorne to Hennepin seems to fit in somewhat easily with a number of other releases that crowd these stylistic waters. But where it stands out, where any album really starts to stands out, is with songs that display an attention to trying to be good, as opposed to just done, and that make a concerted effort to preserve and put across the thing about them that makes them feel honest.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve come back to a line like “It appears my ears will listen when my feet remain in place” and been turned around by the frantic anxiety that so many people seem to have—or at least to want to express, or relate to—but that a few manage to turn into a calmer grace, as if through some kind of unseen drive to stay alive when so many other things are compelling you to do otherwise. It’s not even the quality of the lyric, in this case, as it is its ability to get to the point. That song it comes from, “Basements of Churches”, is a first-person recounting of experiences at an addiction recovery support group meeting. When the narrator exchanges a knowing look with the old man with the old sayings, the only other character we’re introduced to, it’s all we need to set the scene. We become alert to all of the poses and defenses that must be inherent in this kind of setting, as well as the kind of knowledge that must come with getting past them. On “Burnside”, a tumbling piano underwrites remembrances of living an addict’s life (“The drug of choice is more”) in Portland (“So high on Burnside / Just Erin and I / We seem to die a day at a time”). If it sounds twelve-stepy, it’s not. It all comes off as incredibly personal and close to the bone, and it’s executed with enough skill to avoid anything remotely maudlin.
While the album is mostly about struggle, there’s no lament, just small moments resonating across the songs. On the title track, a deceased sibling haunts a run-down of traveling points across the continental US (“What my brother could have been / That’s what I’ve been wondering from Hawthorne to Hennepin / From Brooklyn and back again”). Hawthorne is a bridge in Portland, and Hennepin is Hennepin County in Minnesota, but the line could just as easily be referring to consecutive blocks in Greenpoint and the effect would be the same. The distance is in how far you’re carried along, emotionally or geographically, and in the singer’s ability to recount it so that there is still power in the telling. The album’s centerpiece is “Yellowstone”, another multi-state mini-epic that turns a genuine recollection of the residue of loss (“Back in New York, I’m hanging on to all the clothes he wore”) into something regal and almost cinematic.
At 34 minutes, Hawthorne to Hennepin moves quickly enough to keep the listener from getting swamped, and its touch is light enough to keep the sometimes hard memories from feeling too heavy. But the substance is there in the loss and in the recovery, and musically in the fact that they never lose sight of the next chorus. Having the opportunity to tour with Clint, Michigan, and getting to hear them on a nightly basis as part of what they made feel like a series intimate performances for friends, whether there were 100 or just three of us, was something that still feels incredibly relevant in my personal memories, but also something that I wasn’t sure they’d be able to document without losing some vital piece. Instead, all of the best parts survived the trip.