Music

Dan Bern: Hoody

Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

Red states got the Waffle House. Blue states don't. Dan Bern goes classic country.


Dan Bern

Hoody

Label: Bfd
US Release Date: 2015-09-04
UK Release Date: 2015-09-11
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

Dan Bern's Hoody finds the singer-songwriter thoroughly embracing his classic country muse while still taking the time for a folk song here and a rocker there. The album's second song, "Merle Hank and Johnny" is essentially its mission statement. It finds Bern reminiscing in his twangiest voice about growing up in Iowa and hearing "Merle, Hank, and Johnny / Buck Owens, Jimmie Rodgers, and George Jones" on the radio while spending "Every last dime on rock and roll." He talks about roaming the world around the time the Berlin Wall fell and notes the music they listened to "had drum machines." Eventually he gets around to wondering what his daughter is going to remember about growing up, noting "Cartoon kids, they all play rock and roll" but that he'll make sure she hears those country greats, too. Bern's use of the term "rock and roll" is loaded here: it's a slightly derogatory, intentionally out of touch way to refer to what most simply call rock music, and it puts him in line with how those old school country icons and their fans would refer to the genre.

"Merle Hank and Johnny" is a great song, and whenever Bern embraces either the classic country genre or draws his lyrics from what seems to be personal experience on Hoody, he succeeds wildly. "Terra Haute" is a winning country ambler, with lots of brushed snare, quietly rolling banjo, and some nicely placed pedal steel guitar. Bern sings about being on the road in the wake of Thanksgiving and a visit home. The chorus "I'm just trying to stay awake on the road / Maybe I should get some pie a la mode" strings together loosely connected couplets about people he's met and reminders of locations from his past. The strong melody and that upfront confession "I'm just trying to stay awake on the road" makes the song work wonderfully. Opening track "Hoody" sounds like a rocker for about 10 seconds, before a harmonica and pedal steel presage a downshift in speed and change in mood. The tension-filled guitar is replaced by a mid-tempo banjo and Bern declares "Your heroes all get teleprompters / I've got a bucket of beer". This is quickly followed by the chorus, "I've got my GPS and my hoody / And my one guitar that stays in tune." This is right on the edge of falling into self-parody as Bern is working so hard to show us how ordinary he is. But the song itself is a winner and he follows up that first chorus with the line, "Sometimes your heroin's heroin / Sometimes coffee / Sometimes a girl", and he's righted himself.

"Waffle House" is probably the album's most striking song, 90 seconds of exaggerated country bumpkinism entirely dependent on its chorus "Red states got the Waffle House / Blue states don't". You can almost here the "A-yup!" in the middle of that refrain, but it isn't actually there. It's extremely silly, but it's also extremely memorable. Also memorable is Bern's cover of the 1976 Johnny Cash song "One Piece at a Time", in which an autoworker spends his whole career smuggling Cadillac parts out of the factory in his lunchbox to assemble his very own car. Bern wisely doesn't try to replicate Cash's delivery, and he fills out the original spare arrangement with banjo, harmonica, and additional guitars. Even with more instruments in the band, though, Bern keeps the focus on the story, which is smart since the story is so entertaining.

"Lifeline" is another winning track, mostly due to its strong refrain and its guest vocalist appearances, by co-writer Eric Kufs and particularly ex-Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson. And Bern's literal interpretation of the refrain "I've got a long lifeline" at the end of the song, where he holds out the word "long" for a full 20 seconds, is pretty damn impressive. The uncharacteristically dark and rocking "Welcome" also works, despite being a bit scattered lyrically. It takes on America's gun violence problem, love of vices, and advertising sloganeering all at once, which is a bit much. But once again, a catchy turn of phrase mostly bails Bern out, because putting "Old men with hard-ons and madmen with guns" in your chorus does a lot of heavy lifting for you.

The only places Hoody doesn't work as well are when Bern plays folky love songs. "Turn on a Dime", "World", and "Sky" don't sound much like each other, but they share a more general point of view. Bern comes off sounding much more ordinary when he isn't being specific. He's a good songwriter, but his melodies and chord progressions aren't so unique that they can make a sentiment like "With makeup on your face / And your dress of gingham lace" sound fresh. "World” starts off weird, with lyrics about scientific experiments and atomic blasts. But the actual sentiment of the song boils down to "We're so into each other that we should probably check and see if the world still exists outside this room", and while that's nice, Bern doesn't pull it off like, say, Jason Isbell. "Sky" isn't a love song, per se, but its idea, "I'm okay as long as I can see the sky above me" isn't particularly fascinating, either. These are all decent songs, but without that specificity, be it personal or story-based, they don't make nearly as big of an impact as the album's more distinct songs.

A handful of merely decent songs on an album full of near-great songs makes for a pretty damn strong record, though. Hoody mostly finds Bern in a conversational mood, and trading his reputation for confrontation for a set of really well done classic country-styled songs works very well for him here. Bern has been around for a long time at this point, and he's been stuck with the label "songwriter's songwriter", which is generally code for "the public at large is never going to get this guy, but those of us who know what we're doing know how good he is." So he might as well keep doing exactly what he wants and making his small but passionate audience happy.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.