Forget all you know about the Honeydogs. Forget that they're popular in their hometown Minneapolis, or the fact that they're critics' darlings, or even that they were dropped unceremoniously from their label following a merger (2000's Here's Luck had been recorded years before it came to market on the tiny Palm Records division of Ryko). There is nothing that came before to prepare you for the tour-de-force that is 10,000 Years. I'm not kidding -- this is a quantum leap ahead and, dare I say it, an "important" album.
In the world of rock, it's a rare CD that marries intelligence, melody, and vision together in one most ambitious effort, but this is that and then some. In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Aimee Mann listed it as one of the twelve CDs you absolutely must own. I was skeptical -- thinking perhaps she merely was touting it as a smart businesswoman (it's being distributed on the United Musicians label she and her husband Michael Penn run). But I stand corrected -- for sheer quality alone, it belongs on such a list.
It's a futuristic rock opera that trades on harrowing visions not so terribly removed from today's headlines or those of the Second World War. And that's what makes it so very powerful -- that bleak future is now.
Adam Levy, the creative force behind the project, has a keen understanding of the kind of horrors out there. See, he's more than a rocker. His "other" day job is that of social worker, working for a nonprofit service dealing with inner city kids (the Alvin Carter mural from the building where he works graces the CD's cover art). He's also a family man and father of three. In 1999, he set out trying to write songs based on his work experiences.
You should also know that Adam was a cultural anthropology major at the University of Minnesota, and that he's been studying the Holocaust singe age 12. Two Holocaust-themed books -- the non-fiction "Hitler's Willing Executioners" and the novel "Last of the Just" -- were particularly influential, as these were read by Levy just before he began writing these songs.
From his work experiences and his readings grew the concept that eventually became the futuristic tale of 10,000 Years. Strangely enough, changes wrought in the world since then make the arrival of this nightmare vision in 2004 ever more poignant. September 11th hadn't occurred yet (though the band started recording these songs just a few weeks following that event).
Coming up with a succinct synopsis of the plot line of 10,000 Years is almost impossible (at least, I'm not sure I could do it). Levy puts it this way: "Test-tube kid is born. He's stolen by a woman clairvoyant who understands his life has some kind of martyred purpose. She raises him under horrible circumstances, and the kid is influenced by all the bad stuff around him. He becomes a small-time criminal, is sent to jail, has no remorse or sense of history. But then he has a near-death experience, and then a conversion experience. He realizes he has to connect himself to a higher purpose.
At the time he's having these experiences, the world is undergoing an apocalyptic war led by this Brother 33 character, who is sticking his fingers into ethnic conflicts around the world. So Vadikyn (the test-tube guy) goes off to war, becomes a war hero, and then his genetic background is revealed to him. He realizes he is made of some sort of engineered perfection, and if he donates his body to science, the world will basically be perfect."
Even Levy admits that it's easier to play the album for people than to explain it. The themes here are stark and often desolate: genocide, crime, the blood lust of war, and the various forms evil takes in this modern world. Yet understanding the story is not essential. Even without the narrative and concept, the songs are beautiful and can stand proudly on their own (certainly not always the case with other so-called "rock opera" concept albums).
Producer John Fields (who also performed on keyboards and did programming here) lent out his studio to the Honeydogs as a labor of love. "It's one of the best albums I've ever worked on," he said.
The idea was to give each song its own unique sound, and that's part of the achievement. There's a fairly wide array of sounds and styles here, from 1960s-ish Beatle-esque pop to jazz influences to music that finds reference in other eras entirely.
The Honeydogs are Adam Levy (vocals, guitars, keyboards), Jeff Victor (pianos, keyboards), Noah Levy (drums, percussion), Brian Halverson (electric and acoustic guitars), and Trent Norton (bass). Joining them are plenty of notable others, including Michael Penn, Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish), and Phil Solem (The Rembrandts).
"Dead Stars" opens the CD, a piano-driven song that seems almost Harry Nilsson influenced, musically. It's chock full of lyrical story information, yet only goes a few minutes.
"Test Tube Kid" sets up a musical theme that returns later in the album, one that recalls the later-era Beatles. This is a song of alienation -- of feeling oddly out of place and asking for help: "We work twice as hard to get half as much. / Eternally in debt / Anyplace but here, anytime but now, anything but this / Any ideas?"
A sure-fire favorite is the infectious funk of "Poor Little Sugar". Musically, it hearkens back to Traffic circa The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys or Steely Dan, while Jeff Victor tinkles the ivories with his best Ramsey Lewis "in-crowd" riffs. Here, Levy takes stories from his juvenile offenders and turns them into sweet art -- this is an apology to the innocent youth exposed to far too much: "Poor little sugar you've seen too much / You've seen too much too young / Poor little sugar, sorry that we gave you this world / Poor little sugar -- you've got to make the best of what you've got".
So many of these songs are wonderful even taken out of context. The bluesy soul of "Panhandler's Serenade" is the story of the street operator and his simple life, feeling unstoppable and good, tambourine in his pocket, selling bags, yet losing friends in the process ("another friend with a toe tag").
"The Rake's Progress" is another incredible song, both musically and lyrically. Exposed to violence and crime, our hero has changed from a dear sweet boy into something quite different (because "you can't punk me for too long"). This tight little rock number features some exquisite electric harpsichord work from Peter J. Sands.
A soft and touching ballad, "Damascus Way", builds slowly, the confessions of a Bad Samaritan getting pleasure doing wrong: "You never lose the stains circling the drain / Turn back pages torn and fade away / Nothing more / My green turns to brown in my salad days / Yearning is worse than drowning". The opening guitar and the closing piano are particularly beautiful.
Adam Levy brings out the sitar to achieve the Middle Eastern flavors of the short "Hygiene", a damning and frightening list of reasons people go to war.
The title track is another intelligent rock song. As the evil Brother 33 begins to take down the world, there's a popular rush for people to join up in a war against him: "They're melting their toys down for the war effort / All the kids are standing in line to enlist / Can we please say goodnight to the last 10,000 years? / Can you hear the cold blowing down hell's door? / Can we please say goodnight to the last 10,000 years? / Please wake me up when it's over".
A piano-driven spare ballad exposing the true horrors of war, "Ms. Anne Thrope" is a letter home you won't soon forget: "The wounded bleed / The dying moan / We find it hard to believe in anything / 3 weeks in the trench / Freezing / Bodies everywhere".
The song that speaks directly to the atrocities of the Holocaust is "Were the Heavens Standing Blindly?" Of course, Levy creates an upbeat tune (with banjo and plenty of keyboards) that could be from an earlier era to accompany this questioning of heartless human behavior: "How could a conscience so deny it? / Was it a pillow or a cage? / And were the heavens standing blindly or were they watching filled with rage? / The arc is long but our memories short / Judgment day seems so far away".
The electric harpsichord returns to helm the start of "Last War Lullaby". This long song (over eight minutes) relates the war's progress and is almost several mini-songs gathered into one. There are various musical segue ways and shifts (including a return to earlier musical themes), and lyrics that are clever and alarming with interesting war references (e.g., WWII's Killroy has become Killjoy).
It's a disturbing picture: "The road to Kara Kum was clogged with ragged children / Their parents gone, the troops had killed them / Vacant stares, hollowed cheeks, swollen bellies / The black angel bread lines and land mines to guide them / Holy refuge violated / There's a blood lust never sated / Who'd think that letting them play in the field would leave them with wooden legs?"
"Before the Fall" is a simple tune examining the empty promises and missed opportunities of what was once and what again might be. It's the sad meaningless of it all that comes across here: "A month in the life of no one in particular / A scratch on the earth before we disappear / Opportunity knocked but you weren't listening / Knowledge still corrupts".
A Latin flair graces the guitar strains of the upbeat closer "23rd Chromosome". This is a happy ending complete with movie rights sold to charity. Science advances with new solutions and plot points are tied up: "They found evil's home -- the 23rd chromosome / Murder, famine, love, and hate -- the side effects of fate". Andra Suchy provides some lovely backing vocals here.
While the story might be confusing to some, if you don't understand it from the album alone, there will soon be a movie version, too, currently being put together by Adam Levy and producer Rick Fuller.
This originally was going to be released as a solo project from Adam Levy. However, when the same-named Norah Jones collaborator Adam Levy released an album of rootsy guitar pop, Adam decided to eliminate the confusion and make it a band effort.
Either way, it's quite a stellar accomplishment -- certainly the highlight of his career to date. By filtering his work experiences and knowledge into this important and impressive music, Adam Levy has done himself proud. He's created something compelling that strives to be more than a mere collection of catchy tunes.
10,000 Years is connected to a world that's often bleak and unforgiving, an intelligent and thought-provoking saga that is laden with quality music and meaning and purpose. The strength of the music makes all that meaning go down easily -- a wondrous and passionate achievement and one that should reverberate for years to come.