Whatever happened to good old-fashioned rock-and-roll turf wars? You know, when rock scenes from different cities became rivals, or at least synonymous with quality for a span of years. Detroit Rock City? Sunset Strip? Seattle? Dust in the wind. The positive side of all this is that marketing gurus don’t ruin your fair city’s good name by sucking out its soul with overexposure. The downside is the loss of bragging rights for the rowdy denizens of Cleveland, Phoenix, or Oshkosh. Brooklyn keeps trying to brag, but, well, come on. Plus, the best bands in your favorite zip code play in relative anonymity while bands culled for the mainstream are as unspecific as a news anchor’s voice.
Chicago’s The Thin Man evokes that city’s factory districts, its lazy, loamy Chicago River, its corner bars, its cruel winters, and much more. A salty, romantic ode to tragic love, the bottle, and what happens when people “never have fun anymore”, its one of the city’s hidden treasures. With hints of Tom Waits, Jacques Brel, and punk-infused C&W, it also sounds like nothing else around. If my sorry ass could make deadlines, I’d have nominated The Thin Man for Best Band To Make The Accordion Cool Again on these pages. Alas. Maybe they’‘ll win it next year.
Frontman Kennedy Greenrod is indeed a tall, thin man, but with a low voice that can swing and snarl. On H.M.S. Mondegreen he’s assembled a solid group of players, playing everything from cello and banjo to lap steel and flugelhorn. There’s a consistent tone that binds it all together, though each song asserts its differences in structure, style, and speed. Throughout all, Greenrod’s distinct voice (he was born in Newcastle, England, moving to the States at 17) stretches out syllables or spits them out, even crooning up to high falsetto on the closer, “Sometime Soon”.
“‘Til The Good Lord Shows His Face” announces the record with the upbeat pump-and-wheeze of accordion and plucked banjo, as Greenrod tells a fetching bird “I heard with what skill you pulled the thorn out of love’s paw”. For a split-second it sounds like the Beatles’ “Don’t Pass Me By” but you’ll thank the good Lord it’s not. It’s both sunny and menacing. The refrain is rich with vocal harmony and melody: “Until the ships sink / Until the fish float / Until the good Lord shows His face”. I can’t think of another song that invokes the apocalypse with such warmth. “The Ballad of A+M” is a gypsy-ish stomp, a gothic tale along the lines of 16 Horsepower, with boozy parlor ambience replacing religious fervor. After each verse Greenrod returns to the phrase, “it’s no picnic”, and it builds in resonance until it hits a growling apex. Steve Emmerman’s cello shivers ecstatically while Kenny Dread’s drum work downshifts from rock to a slow reggae bounce for a short spell.
Even when the songs pulse along breathlessly, they contain shifts in dynamics and instrumentation, such as the organ and cooing background vocals that color “Lazarose”. “For Us” is a waltzing noir classic, featuring some of the album’s finest lyrics. “All the stars they shine for us / All the miners mine for us / Nightingales are singing now for us / All the hens lay eggs for us / All the beggars beg for us / Burglars steal their candlesticks for us” he sings, and one can imagine a drunken sailor doing the same, swinging his legs off the end of a dock while cats yowl in the alley and a woman with a rose tattoo on her breast listens attentively from an upper story window.
The Thin Man’s songs have a way of not only conjuring what’s contained in the lyrics, but thoughts and images that lie just beyond. The world of H.M.S. Mondegreen is full of cigarette smoke and ghosts that inhabit even the songs they’re not mentioned in, as in the ballad “Warm Hands” when he sings “I wish the moment would freeze on the wall”, and wails “I just want to be a good man / And I just want to be kind” atop descending bursts of electric guitar. “Yes, But How Much? ” speeds along like a runaway desert train, its chooglin’ rhythm overlaid with pedal steel and deep cello tones. It sounds like no other song on Mondegreen, yet still feels like a deserved part of the whole. It also deserves to be heard coast to coast, live or on record, for Chicago has renewed cause to brag and share.