As a young man one of my ambitions was to be a novelist. I plowed through a load of 19th century Russian and 20th century American novels in my early twenties so I was pretty sure I’d absorbed enough alienation and ennui to pull it off. But after many fruitless nights home alone with a typewriter it became clear that novelizing was not for me. I just couldn’t put my ideas into someone else’s mouth. I was more of a ‘lay it out direct’ kind of guy and damn the artistic pretences. Eventually I found an academic writing home but, happy ending, I do get my creative writing fix here with this blog. So today’s post riffs on the ‘novel’ side of music, with acts that exude a literary demeanor to me in one way or another.
This might seem like a stretch but Appleton, Wisconsin artist Amos Pitsch has a name that sounds like a character from a Harper Lee novel to me. I came to Pitsch’s work on his debut solo record, the bracing, delicately lyrical, mostly acoustic guitar-laden Lake Effect. To get a sense of the ambience you might check out “Lake of the Old Northeast,” a track that reminds me of The Shins or Guster in a mellow mood. Or dig the subtle melodic hook buried in the spare acoustic guitar and vocal performance of “Shiny Things to Stop Your Tears.” But the standout track here for me is the title song “Lake Effect,” a real poprock gem – again, simple and direct in execution with a wonderful swirl of vocals, up front rhythm guitar, and colourful piano lead lines. There’s a light Ben Folds air about the song. Pitsch’s new 2022 album Acid Rain departs from this ambience, adding more lyrical bite and musical distortion. Opening cut “I’m So Angry” lays it all out over a buzz of reverby, distorted guitar. The album is a incisive critical rumination on where America is now politically. “(We Got It Made) In the USA” bristles with sarcastic condemnation, practically sung through gritted teeth. There are upbeat moments too though, like the keyboard-riffic “It Feels So Good (To Know That You’re Around).” Or the seventies-positive Wings vibe on “In Our Old House, Part Two.” The album wraps with two tracks that capture the 1970s cross-over country feel of The Band. “Oak Hill Blues” is hit worthy and wouldn’t be amiss covered by The Sheepdogs. “Dying Young” has a more soul vamp, like 70s Hall and Oates meets Levon Helm. Basic takeaway: Pitsch is smart but relatable, like any good novelist should be.
Another novel-like character name is Trapper Schoepp. I can see him springing from the pages of Sinclair Lewis or even Jack Kerouac in his later period. Musically, this boy is a great big ball of talent. Over the course of five or so albums his crack band has conjured up an Americana sound with bits of influence from the Byrds, Tom Petty, Wilco and early Bruce Springsteen. “Pins and Needles” from 2012’s Run Engine Run is emblematic of this fun synthesis, vibing a Replacements-style ramshackle excitement. On 2016’s Rangers and Valentines producer Brendan Benson gives Schoepp’s word-packed tunes a wonderful poprock sheen. So many highlights here like “Mono, Pt. 2,” “Ogailala,” and “Settlin’ or Sleepin’.” The album oscillates between uptempo and more Dylanesque folky numbers. Check out the Springsteen River-ish feel on “Dream.” As an interlude 2017’s EP Bay Beach Amusement Park is a neo-1950s celebration of the rides on the midway. 2019 brought Shoepp’s tour-de-force recording Primetime Illusion. What a collection of tunes! Again, I hear some Springsteen, this time a less bleak Darkness-era aura, particularly on “Drive-Thru Divorce.” Shoepp’s strongly socially-conscious lyrics shine powerfully on his anti-sexual assault song “What You Do To Her.” The album also contains his co-write with Bob Dylan on “On, Wisconsin” though my personal fave is “TV Shows” with its tasty guitar work. In 2021 Schoepp took a pastoral turn on May Day, mixing up the tempo from tune to tune, from the lovely “Paris Syndrome” to the more acid “Hotel Astor.” With song titles like “May Day” “Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man” and “My Comrade” there definitely something literary going on here.
And now for the inspiration behind today’s themed post, New York City’s The Great American Novel. These guys have got it all: literary references, wry humour, and hooks galore. The band’s debut Kissing is essentially a concept album revolving around the post-teenage experiences of the group’s creative force, Layne Montgomery. Songs deal with kissing, being good at kissing, sleeping alone, being bad with girls, and wanting to hang out, interspersed with numbers dropping clear literary references. Alienation and ennui? Check. But hold up, the tunes themselves belie such downer labels. “Sleeping Alone” is the peppiest rumination on the theme I’ve ever heard. “American Weekend” is a rollicking poprock romp.”Raymond Carver” lands where pub rock meets new wave, with great organ and background vocal highlights. “Kissing” sounds like it borrowed keyboards from the Penguin Café Orchestra. A year later album number 2 featured a harsher sound and a less coherent concept but the songs were still strong. I’d single out “Wish You Were Beer” and “Rad Education” for special mention. The next seven years would only see the occasional single or EP surface, like the punchy “Teenage Feelings.” In 2021 the band finally turned out a new LP, the very Sloan-ish Extremely Loud and Incredibly Online. The amps are turned up and the songs have a bit more attack: less jokey tentative, more rockin’ you direct. “Grabbin’ a Slice” sounds like 1990s FM radio hit single material. The short cut opener “Bad News, I Still Love You” is a winner too.
Well if today’s post has taught us anything it’s that some acts belt out the tunes and have something to say. In our visually saturated world, that is novel.
Photo courtesy Swizzle Gallery.