Get On With It: Going Home with the Foghorns

a1260674649_16The Foghorns – . . . on a Dog’s Ass Sometime
(2017, Knick Knack Records)

The older you get, the more the memories pile up. The Foghorns’ new album . . . on a Dog’s Ass Sometime (a companion piece to their 2015 album The Sun’s Gotta Shine . . .) is an album about nearing middle-age and using a rare opportunity of reflection to recall ALREADY feeling old in one’s late twenties, around the first time you truly realized life’s reality may not match previous expectations. You get nostalgic for feeling nostalgic. You recall missing the partner and/or friend you once had without necessarily missing the partner themselves. You’re too damn cynical to think any more of those old flames or hook-ups as the ones that got away.

The first two songs on this album are the musical equivalent of late-night drunk Facebook-stalking of an old girlfriend. Revisited familiarity bringing immediate fondness (in the song “Old Trans Am”) followed by reactionary dark hypothesizing and gallows humor (“Wisconsin Polka”). Then by the third song (“Filthy Old Man”), as you can’t stop looking at those pictures and the past becomes present, you suddenly, in that instant, have become who you once were.

But being nostalgic for being nostalgic only works for so long before the protective layer of self-awareness is worn thin. If most nights, you stop after the 2nd beer and set the alarm to get at least a solid 6 hours of snooze time in, then what we’re observing here is that rare occasion when you ignore internal red alerts, switch from beer to whiskey and begin to obsess in the same way you used to obsess.

The next three songs (“Leave the Opera to Florence,” “Sleepy Waltz (Redux),” and “When Your Father Bought That Harley Davidson”) form the heart of the album and collectively depict a man submerged in the depths of his own memory and pathos, coming up for air on a couple occasions before being dragged back down by his own lack of will to tread water.  In “Leave the Opera to Florence,” the narrator begs his lost love to retroactively recognize what they had together for what it was, not for what they wanted it to be. Because maybe if they hadn’t made the affair more than it was, both parties would have been happier in the moment instead of miserable for the long-term.

“Sleepy Waltz Redux” (a melodic cousin to “Lorelai” by fellow Seattleites The Fleet Foxes) finds our narrator in a half-dream state, consciously aware he is in his own bed and drifting into the ether while at the same time his dream self is downstairs in the living room where he sees the ghost of his lost lover lingering, bringing to mind the Greek myth of Orpheus descending into Hades to retrieve Eurydice. Orpheus only got through hell and back by playing songs on his lyre to charm the pants off those guarding the underworld, which is perhaps what the narrator (or the band’s main singer/songwriter Bart Cameron himself) is attempting to do here.1

The narrator of “Sleepy Waltz Redux” is at the climax of his fight here, in true pain at having to be so close to the memory he’s managed to keep at arm’s length for years, yet so happy to have so much specificity revealed all over again and dance with these details once more. The narrator knows that to be unconditionally happy in nostalgia’s throes is to surrender . . . unless you can get back to your present self through the epiphany of mistakes recognized and the reason for these mistakes revealed.2

In the next and last song of this three-song sequence, “When Your Father Bought That Harley Davidson,” the narrator matter-of-factly (and barely wistfully) depicts a situation from his adolescence that his memory leapfrogs to after feeling once again in the last song that ol’ Midwestern, Pentecostal guilt over misuse of sexual interaction, which has risen up from the deep dark dungeon where the inner adolescent still resides. The guilt forms into half-heard whispers in the head that resemble an old default philosophy, that greatest-hit of religiously-programmed notions:  sex fucks everything up.

The narrator grasps for proof of this consciously long-invalidated notion. The memory stumbles back to being a teenager and going over to a friend’s house whose dad just ditched the family. This is a girl the narrator has known since at least 2nd-grade, the kind of friend that you don’t recognize right away as a sexual being when first passing through the awkward gates of puberty. But gradually you start thinking of what it would be like to accidentally have your skin make contact with hers, to catch her eye while catching her sneaking a look at you. Meanwhile, as the weeks go by and the girl realizes her father is not coming back and her mom is no help since she falls asleep on the couch most nights after a glass of wine or five, the girl begins thinking of the boy in a different way too. This young girl is hurting and needs distraction, needs to attempt to fill an emotional void that can’t be filled but at least by trying, more time will pass. Whatever is done behind closed doors is done without worry, just excitement of the confusing sort. And the confusion is necessary so that for a few moments it can eclipse the lessons of the recent and sudden crash course that good people can turn out to be shitty people, even fathers. It is only in those instances of letting the emotional unknown and physical unknown intersect that the fear and worry go away.

Then one night, after falling asleep on the girl’s bed while MTV softly plays the same 20 videos over and over, the narrator gets up to go back home and the girl’s mother is sitting on the couch crying while watching a rerun of “MASH,” almost passed-out from the one-and-a-half empty bottles of gas-station merlot sitting on the coffee table, right next to the overflowing ashtray. She asks the boy if he would like to sit down just for a second. After a while, what happens sometimes in these situations happens and though nothing much happens, the boy only goes over back over to the house one, maybe two more times only to invent excuses as to why he has to leave before he can once again be the girl’s much-needed distraction.

The narrator ends the song and this section of the album absolving himself, connecting the dots with cause-and-effect assessment of said situation which, as an adult, he has never been able to think back on without reverting to adolescent shame. Our hero is now finally going through pre-bedtime formalities, telling himself something has been faced, something has been confronted. And yet as he’s reaching for the toothbrush, he then starts to suspect in his pre-dawn connection-to-the-cosmos that it was a cheat to use an adolescent memory to bury others unearthed.

One more half-whiskey is poured. And the narrator of these songs remembers that the biggest mistake to make in looking back is using isolated moments of happiness as the basis to form true knowledge upon. He now has to remember the end of an affair (maybe a specific one, maybe most of them) from Not Too Long Ago and take what he has just learned as a filter to view the worst of times through. And so we have the narrator telling his almost ex-lover in the song “Get On With It” to make like the song’s title so that in the present, sweet indulgent nostalgia can be purged to reveal the sour rage the narrator didn’t know was still festering inside.

With this in mind, “Spanish Accusations”  finds the narrator entering cold hard sleep, seeing in his dreams a woman he once knew and might have thought he loved and maybe he did. He sees her on the streets of Madrid as a traveler while he is just a tourist. In the logic of the dream, he recalls suddenly another time when they were there together that he didn’t remember happening until the moment he saw her again. As he confronts her, they start arguing, or rather he starts trying to argue as she is completely calm, claiming she is not where or who he thinks she is. The narrator looks around the street and sees other faces he once knew and another old girlfriend off in the distance, almost swallowed by the rest of the crowd. He turns to the ex-lover he was just arguing with and apologizes for trying to start an argument. “It’s OK,” she says, smiling inexplicably. The narrator suddenly feels at peace, happier than he’s felt since his second child was born.

And just then an alarm goes off and it’s time to wake up again.

 

All through this album, we touch upon the subtle and not-so-subtle Wisconsin branding of Bart’s (and my own) home state in references to the state itself, Harley Davidson, Trans-Am. We see in implication a red America struggling to be blue or maybe the other way around depending on the day or the election cycle.  On . . . on a Dog’s Ass Sometime, the best possible state the narrator can emerge from a trip to the past is a state where resignation, without paradox, can be combined with hope. It’s the hope without resignation that was exploited in this last election all over the coal and Bible belts, an exploitation that I can’t listen to this album without thinking of

I don’t like listening to the last two tracks on the album (“Folk Jesus,” a remake of “More Than Jesus” from The Foghorns’ great 2011 album To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig, and “Maybelline,” a surprisingly faithful Chuck Berry cover3 after these first 8 songs. These two recordings are solid on their own and there is an argument to be made that they depict our narrator backsliding into forgetting the lessons learned through his dark night of the soul. But I personally prefer to stop the album and marvel at the depiction of the struggle and the triumph over said struggle before considering what happens after.

Make no mistake, . . . on a Dog’s Ass Sometime is a masterpiece of songwriting and musical performance by any just measure. Whether you believe like I do that the album proper resides in those first 8 tracks with the last two tracks acting as bonus track-epilogues or whether you think like Jon Rooney4 that those last two songs are a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the classification still stands. If you’re an avid Foghorns listener, you might miss how great this album truly is because the quality of songwriting has always been on mark and the last two albums also had songs adding up to more than the sum of their parts to make for album-length cohesive expressions.

The recording, arrangements, and mixing (by Colin J. Nelson at Her Car Studios) on this album are the best ever for a Foghorns album. On the last album, the band went for a clarity over grandiose wall-of-sound and here perfect that approach. You never doubt what the singer is singing or what he means, since not one instrument is playing a note that is unnecessary or unsupportive to the song and the singer. The backing vocals by the Foghorn choir are sensitive, subtle, aching AND hilarious (dig the faux-German accents on “Wisconsin Polka”). Lauren Trew uses the bass clarinet to further express and intersect with the singer’s longing. Peter Colclasure on various keyboards, including accordion, continues his role of tasteful chordal texturalist and layer of countermelodic bedrock. The drummer Jason Kopec, as usual, plays inventive patterns and rhythms that strike the balance between the traditional and the unconventional, as does bassist Ken Nottingham in  both rhythmic and melodic capacities. Bart’s singing is his best ever, restrained and mannered so that the strongest emotion comes out in the spaces between the notes and the words.

There’s many reasons I can’t pretend to be objective about this album. The Foghorns and I share the same bass player and producer. Many of their other members  (including Bart himself), play with me on regular occasion and I sit in with the band to do a song or two frequently. Furthermore, Bart Cameron is someone I consider a spiritual-by-way-of-agnostic soul brother, as well as a more literal one from our shared southeastern Wisconsin homeland. He is both the setter and most faithful disciple of the highest standards to be followed concerning the notion of Rock n’ Roll as Religion, both in the respectful and disrespectful sense

But I do hope it’s become apparent that being close to the artist-in-question comes directly from feeling close to the art itself in question. Foolishly or not, I turn to rock n’ roll myself for advice on dealing with getting older, facing looming mortality and how to deal with those memories that keep piling up. From an insider’s point of view, trust me when I say that you can do far worse than putting this album on in the dead of night (while Facebook stalking old girlfriends or not) and looking for answers.

1: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks is narratively elusive, even within the same song, about whether the singer is singing about the same woman throughout or a shifting archetype. I feel the same way about this album . . . for instance, the jailbait girlfriend in”Filthy Old Man” is not the same woman being traveled with in “Leave the Opera to Florence” but probably is the same one from “Wisconsin Polka” given the lyrical overlap about being a “dirty old man” between the two songs. It should also be noted that the idea all the songs have the same narrator is a very subjective one and one I doubt very much Bart intended . . . yet it is irresistible to use as a way to explain the threads connecting these songs so strongly.
2: There’s a more straightforward interpretation of this (and OK, most of these) songs: that the narrator is having a late-night drink then dance with an old  lover in her living room while her husband is waiting for her in bed upstairs. Either interpretation carries the same emotional weight in context of the album’s overall arc.
 3: The sad timing of Chuck Berry’s death coming right before this album’s release throws these last two tracks into a weird relief, like Wilco recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot before 9-11 and having the imagery co-opted by real world events when it was eventually released in 2002. “Folk Jesus” contains a reference to “my tired ding-a-ling” which is hard not to read as a reference to Berry’s only #1 hit, a novelty cover of “My Ding-a-Ling.” And the more you know about Berry’s proclivities, the easier it is to project the broken down man basing his personal resurrection on an erection into an older version of Berry himself.
4: Jon Rooney is the leader of Virgin of the Birds and composer of “Spanish Accusations.” When asked  about my theory that his song is the true resolution to the songs coming before, he says, ”I read it less as a closer and more like one last vain Apollonian gesture before being brought down the grit of Bart’s humanity, with a song about Easter and boners then, finally, a cover of rock’s original poet. The return home is Chuck Berry.” You can read Jon’s much more musically-insightful review of . . . on a Dog’s Ass Sometime here on Ball of Wax also.
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