Don't force my hand.
Long Island is one of the most prominent communities in the country to which this blanket statement can be said to apply. With its proximity to New York City, it can be argued that Long Island is the archetype of all suburbia. The middle class men and women that make up the majority of Long Island's population are striving for that mythical American Dream, reaching for the wealth that is varying degrees of distance away from their outstretched fingertips, but never quite within their grasp. This is the dominant paradigm into which they bring their children, and most of their children grow up to follow in their parents' footsteps, still reaching for that proverbial brass ring. Some get closer through the generations, some fade farther away, and some stay in the exact place that previous generations of their family occupied.
But what happens when the children of Long Island turn away from this entire cycle? What happens to them when they look around at the world they've been given and come to see it as hollow and bankrupt? What happens when they realize that, in their own minds if nowhere else, it is the working class, the common man, who seems to most embody the Real America?
One answer to that question can be found on Mendicant Friends' newest CD, "These Are American Songs." Mendicant Friends are five boys from Long Island, all of whom have turned away from the American Dream and are now wandering the country, searching for their true selves and playing music along the way to anyone who will listen. Their albums, of which "These Are American Songs" is the third, are filled with these recovering suburbanites' takes on America as they have found it in their travels. One section of the album's rather inscrutable liner notes reads: "These are American songs, and all our lonely silos were sworn in, told to me on front porches, sung in cars, vans, buses, and bicycle shells, environments of motion and thought and confusion and yes, language, crossing through South Dakota, California, Indiana, Colorado, Kansas, New Hampshire, Georgia, both Carolinas, Spain, Italia, New Africa, and yes, New York." Then there is a line break, emphasized with a line drawn in ink. Under the line, it says simply, "Long Island was our home." All of this is written in a strange, ornate penmanship that evokes the calligraphy of past centuries.
The music on the CD also evokes a past century, conjuring up the ghosts of Delta blues and Ozark mountain hillbilly yodels, then mixing these things with dissonant electric guitar lines that are more noise than they ever are structured melodic leads. If it weren't for lead vocalist Evan Louison's high, boyish tenor, I might feel like I'm sitting on some old man's porch, listening to him play songs from past generations on an old acoustic guitar as cars roar past on the four-lane highway that the road in front of his house has grown into. Louison strums the basic chords to his mournful, high-lonesome songs on a beat-sounding acoustic guitar, and often this strumming and his angelic voice are all that there is to be heard. On the album's closing track, "Dust Storms", even those things drop out at times, and this is when the production job shines through. Producer Phil Douglas has done an amazing job of capturing not just the sound of the music being played, but the sound of the room it's being played in. During the moments when Evan stops singing, pauses in the strumming of the song's chords, the whole room seems to hold its breath, and this tension floats down the wires and out through your speakers into the room where you're playing the CD. At first, "These Are American Songs" might seem like a mellow record, one that's easy to listen to while falling asleep, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it demands attention, raising the hairs on the back of your neck with its silences as well as its sounds. "Dust Storms" is a creepy song, mixing disconnected lyrical imagery that relates the sometimes fearsome weather of the flat midwest to problems with communication in a romantic relationship. There's something here about a relationship with God, too, but I can't quite understand it, and the lyric sheet, instead of clarifying my confusion, only further muddies the waters. The words to the album are scrawled out of order, mixing lines from different songs together and scrambling even the easy to understand parts, so that it's all one can do to even pick them out. Worst of all, it's written in sloppy, faded chickenscratch, like a note written to oneself and never intended for other eyes. This mysterious approach might be frustrating in other situations, but here it's fascinating, and adds to the romantic feel Mendicant Friends create with their powerful evocation of eras long past.
There is one song here that at least seems to acknowledge the modern era, always assuming I'm making accurate sense of Louison's strange lyrics. This is the opening song, which might be called "Twin Sisters" or "Don't Force My Hand", or might be called something else completely. As I said, these are strange and inscrutable liner notes. Here, as is basically true on the entire album, Evan Louison's voice and guitar are almost the only things we hear. There are four other members of Mendicant Friends, and while percussion, bass, and folk instruments like banjo do show up on occasion, most of the time it seems that the only real duties of the other four members are to create the snaky electric guitar lines mentioned earlier, and to sing backup on the songs' dramatic choruses. That's pretty much all they do on "Twin Sisters" (or whatever it's called), but nonetheless the other members play a vital role, singing the chorus so loudly that they drown Louison out and creating a powerful crescendo in an otherwise minimal song, one that makes me shiver with its obvious emotion. Louison is singing during the verses about "towns who's names are other places", factories, churches, and "petrified gardens", none of which seems to have anything to do with the chorus. This doesn't reduce the effect of this chorus, and indeed the chorus helps to place an emotional resonance on lines that might mean nothing without that context: "the car filled up with exhaust, all on it's own", or "the roads we build to walk and drive and crawl upon" take on a more depressing and ominous meaning than they might have otherwise.
This all comes together with a line in the last verse that crystallizes everything Mendicant Friends are saying with this entire album: "I'll stop asking what everyone's rent is because it's always less than mine," Louison sings. Then he continues, "And even worse, sometimes it's just as high." The members of Mendicant Friends have discovered a truth that is particularly bitter for kids from their native land: once you decide to walk away from the American Dream, to identify with the common people and to sing their songs, you are fucked. There's integrity to your life that you may have found absent before, but there's also poverty and toil, and soul-crushing despair. It hurts to know that people everywhere else in the country pay less than you to have a place to live, but it hurts twice as much to find those rare unfortunate souls who are just as bad off as you. Would that these songs could fix those problems, could help ease the struggles of the common people all over this country, who are continually left behind by the rich men they are given to represent them. Perhaps, if nothing else, the songs of Mendicant Friends can ease some of that spiritual pain, at least for a moment, by giving it voice and allowing it catharsis. It's not everything, but sometimes it's enough to get you through the day.