The lonesome crowded midwest
Flowers - New Ruins
Book Lung - New Ruins
Last weekend, peeling labels off emptied beer bottles in a country & western bar on the north side of Chicago, some friends and I discussed (there was no argument; we agreed) why probably no one in the room was an authentic cowboy. Not the regulars (ragged, unrepentant drunks, chins hanging low to the bar), nor the proficient two-steppers with their ironed western shirts neat-tucked into their bootcut jeans. Certainly not the boisterous bragging Cubs & Sox fans or hood-eyed hipsters who trickled in as rock shows ended and the night drew on and the spectrum of opportunity to pose ironically with their PBRs constricted dramatically. No authentic cowboys, we agreed, because while the midwest is thick with hicks and hayseeds, loners, wanderers and farmkids (and I say those things affectionately) -- many of whom move to Chicago and assume the appearance of urbanity and assemble into a mostly invisible rural diaspora -- places to herd cattle are nonexistent for hundreds and hundreds of miles. It's a plain fact of geography.
A real live westerner myself, born and (mostly) bred in the thin dry air of the Rocky Mountains, but also a dozen-year Chicago resident whose family history is carved into the bedrock of this city and state (I'm pretty closely related to Illinois' most famous political export), I can attest: There's a difference between western and midwestern. Not just in speech patterns (vowels flattening out on the long slow crawl to the Pacific), or in attitudes toward the federal government, but in relation to physical space. A southern friend once teased me for recoiling when people stand too close or lean in too near to talk. It's true. As Schoolhouse Rock's lesson in manifest destiny (excised of all that icky genocide) goes, everybody needs some elbow room. I do, anyway.
So all this is sort of a crabwalk to a musical point of inquiry: Does music concerned, even on the basic level of nomenclature, with specificity of place, roots or Americana, differentiate by region? Is a variance audible between, say, music inspired by rural landscapes of unlimited perspective of land and sky (or, at least, their illusion), and those drawn and quartered by farm acreage, white picket fences, church steeples and other markers of the civilized and finite?
Let me back up and explain what got me here. A couple days ago I heard this very good new album (The Sound They Make) by a band (New Ruins) from Champaign-Urbana, a largish Illinois college town set in a sea of cornfields. It's a rock record and a roots record, a distinctly American record that oscillates between slow songs with deliberately drawn portraits of small-town claustrophobia and faster frantic escape attempts. All tempoed numbers, though, are dense with detail -- guitars and keyboards, cellos and violins, shakers and wood-block percussion. New Ruins is a duo, but you wouldn't know it from the noise they stir up. And my gut reaction, the first evaluative step I took was: This sounds midwestern. Part of it is that New Ruins reminds me of, more than any other right-now band, those dour Ohio expats, The National. The National of large gestures in crowded rooms and self-defeating versions of masculinity, of baritone plaints and caged rhythms. The National which, despite its Britpop nods and current Brooklyn address, plants its itchy feet in the loamy midwest soil. (So, more like The Regional, huh?)
I hate to push a point this vague, but New Ruins peddles a kindred midwestern gothic (the band even uses that phrase to describe itself) -- housed and haunted. Oh, so haunted! Almost every one of their album's songs rouses ghosts. Not, I suspect, in the strictly supernatural sense (though that too perhaps), but as specters of bad feelings, relinquished hopes, cracked relationships. None of which sounds like much fun, I know. But it is. "Book Lung," for example, is a riveting track of quicktimed martial drums, sketched with black skies, dirty sheets and men who shake with rage like power lines in the wind. Mostly, though, it's a song that seems to exist to convey a single line sung again and again: Your ghost still walks all around these hills. The key word, I think, being still. The implication, still here, trapped. Gorgeous strings moan and a forlorn organ bleats like an emergency warning throughout another song, "Flowers." And the singer's grainy tongue (both guys sing, I don't know which one it is) catalogues his small town's decay: ditches and rusted cars and flowers pushing up floorboards in abandoned houses. And so the record goes on like this song-by-song -- small squares of frustration beautifully stitched together, like the patchwork quilt my own midwestern great-grandmother made and I (sadly, because there's no room to put it out) keep folded in a closet. Or the pieced parcels of earth you might see from the sky as your plane flies westward from Chicago.
The Sound They Make (Amazon, eMusic). New Ruins' Myspace.