This Murder Won’t Hurt You, Baby – Sam Russell on the Foghorns

[The Foghorns‘ new album The Sun’s Gotta Shine comes out today. Our friend Sam Russell has a few things to say about it. -ed]

The sun shines in Kenosha. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers

The sun shines in Kenosha. Photo by Eric Allix Rogers

I tend to assume that wherever a person was born, wherever they are from, they have an attachment, an inseparable bond with that place. That they think of that place as being unique and the reasons for it being unique they can never quite fully convey to an outside party, and only when one crosses paths with another from this same place can this recognition can be shared. I assume the feeling of uniqueness and ownership for one’s homeland is a universal glue and that though we are not all from the same place then at least we all have a place where we are from.

However, the older I get and the more people I meet, I realize this is not always so. For starters, not every person was born and raised in one place, a single location where all thoughts, daydreams, and fantasies had as a child and adolescent were once contained; a place where when one returns to, the ghosts of these former or sometimes still relevant yearnings are seen in the remaining people and locations that remain and remind.

But there’s something about the time and place where I was born, in Kenosha, WI in the 1980s and 1990s, and being raised by baby boomer parents who experienced the broad split and drastic social and cultural change between the 1950s and 1960s that made a child like me both long for a past never experienced and be instantly nostalgic for the time they were being raised in. And furthermore be raised to believe that the time you live in can change at a moment’s notice, or even that moment might be gone even before it passes.

I first met Bart Cameron, founder and proprietor of The Foghorns, when he assisted in engineering a recording session of mine. When I dropped the needle on the blue vinyl of his band’s last album, the great To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig, I heard a sound I instantly recognized and identified with for reasons both obvious and unfathomable. The production was clearly going for the earlier raw rock and roll of my parents’ childhood, sounds rubbing up against each other and fighting to jump out while mystery was the bonding agent holding the verging-on-collapse arrangements together. And that voice, that nervous plain-spoken quavering singing voice, cutting through all the madness, insistently articulating every syllable and forcing the listener to take the words he’s singing at their confrontational face value.

As a musician, the most valuable peer one can find is one who is roughly the same age as you, who carries a similar but not exact same sensibility, who has a large pool of music knowledge and similar influences but not the exact influences, and so forth. In this circumstance there is less an idea of competition or envy (though those emotions occasionally and healthily arise) but of recognition first, that someone else carries certain mutual influences of music and culture and is interested in expressing them in the same fashion that you are.

Pretend this is Wisconsin. Photo by Jessi Kempin

This might as well be Wisconsin. Photo by Jessi Kempin

Bart Cameron is from Racine, WI, the town directly to the north of my hometown. Later, his family moved to my hometown of Kenosha, to the beach area of Simmons Island off of Lake Michigan. It should go without saying at this point that the recognition I hear in Bart’s music is that same elusive specificity of time and place that we turn to music to convey.

The Foghorns are now releasing a new album called The Sun’s Gotta Shine, the first of two albums they are putting out this year. The production is cleaner on this album than on the previous album, guitar chords can heard be changing in sonic close-up with unflinching clarity, as if telling a fan of the last album that one can’t always hide behind youthful reverb and late-night drunken kitchen-sink arrangements. Even if it may be more romantic to try and utilize beautiful chaos as the go-to backdrop for present instincts needing to be expressed, the only true way to convey the directness needed to function as an adult attempting to leave nostalgic impulses behind is to have all the musical corners of a given performance revealed and out in the open.

On the first song of the new album, “Ain’t I A Man,” Bart alternates between using the title phrase sincerely and sarcastically, with the Foghorn choir of backing vocals egging him on. He makes reference to leaving Wisconsin and introduces the theme of newborn infants being the pure blank-canvas beauty to consider after indicating that being a man or grown-up means to have already compromised one’s values. The next song, “Sons and Daughters of the Molly Maguires,” deals with the ill-advised methods and attitudes we are taught in adolescence to use in order to deal with compromised values and the injustices of society. This song also continues the theme of how the longer one is exposed to the workings of the world as they age, a purity we are born with becomes more and more infected, much like the concept of Biblical original sin. This frustration is expressed mainly musically (and probably autobiographically) in “$400,” where the narrator decries how people waste their opportunities and wages in dead-end purchases and ambitions while those with more pure ambitions (e.g. to create music) are not rewarded justly for noble pursuits because, as the old cliché goes, life ain’t fair.

There’s no getting around that The Sun’s Gotta Shine is a “parent” album, from the point-of-view of a new father overcome with the presence of the living breathing person he has helped bring into the work. “Beautiful Soul” expresses this overwhelming gratitude, though placed in the middle of the album where different characters and narrators are facing the undeniable horrors of life brings about, both in the present time we live in and times already past.

The title of the album,”The Sun’s Gotta Shine,” alone tells the story, as if being a once-overheard-then-coopted-mantra that gets muttered to the self through a grey season of intermittent Seattle rain before being transformed into a triumphant statement of proof, via the transformative experience of becoming a father. If you wait around long enough, things have got to get better and life, for all its dark moments, must have the light too for the sake of balance.

This song that directly precedes “Beautiful Soul” is “Lullaby,” wherein the narrator has passed the point-of-no-return in a breakdown over either a) an affair being conducted while he tries to go about living the routines of the day-to-day with his own wife and family or b) the inability to move on from one’s former wife and life to the new one you’ve chosen now to have, realizing too late he can’t move on. It’s easy (maybe too easy) to see both narrators in these two songs as the same and that this same guy only makes it through the psychological breakdown of “Lullaby” by seeing with relief that he has created something pure even though his immoral actions and lack of humanity prevent him from being deserving of.

Such transitions and overlaps exist between all the songs on the album, and in “If you Can’t Get Lucky Please Get Up” Bart uses the scenario of riding the subway through New York City at night as a time and place where the darkness and horror is explicitly on the surface, constantly threatening and just waiting or an excuse to strike. This song seems to be saying, even in this concentrated hotbox of probable damage, to at least do all you can to make it out of the train car with whatever you have left intact.

Directly following “If You Can’t Get Lucky . . .” and acting as defacto resolution to the album’s themes is “This Murder Won’t Hurt You” (actually a cover of a song by Levi Fuller but here made The Foghorns’ own), advising the listener (his son again?) that in this world and life, people will constantly blur the definition of what good and evil are and make something naturally beautiful seem sinister or vice versa. Said notion bleeds into the album’s last track, and to my ears, its epilogue, “Alfred the Elephant,” where his child’s stuffed animal is the target for the narrator to project upon his momentary inability (and acceptance of said inability) to reconcile the beauty and horror depicted up until this point in time.

If there’s one thing I recognize in Bart’s songwriting from the point of view of being raised in the same time and place as him, it’s that we were raised in an era more grey than others that taught us to take no moral at face value to live, to live with cautiousness and optimism blurred together. The ’80s had constant pop culture signifiers that tried to dissect the change from the so-called innocent 1950s into the seemingly all-encompassing coming-of-age of the 1960s. Back to the Future, The Wonder Years, Stand By Me (the movie), oldies radio and countless television ads all told me a child that there was something I had missed by being born in the wrong time.

We were raised to be nostalgic, in other words, and if this way of thinking is so ingrained into our beings that we cannot completely purge a longing for a mythic past era, then the best option may be to transform this culturally-coded yearning into a positivity, albeit a positivity shot through with cautiousness that comes with the constant awareness that the sun’s, indeed, gotta shine.

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