MSGR25 2006 CD
Breathe Easy (EP)
MSGR26 2006 EP
MSGR20 2004 EP
My Country II
MSGR19 2004 EP
MSGR12 2003 CD
The Swastika E.P.
MSGR11 2002 EP
MSGR10 2002 EP/Book
New American Language
MSGR09 2001 CD
Dan Bern - Breathe
"We live in different worlds right along beside each other."
So sang Dan Bern in one of his early songs. But really we all just live in Dan's world, and he's been generous enough to let us believe otherwise all along.
Let's face it: the man has more stray thoughts, makes more obscure and askant connections, tries on more hats, slips into more pairs of shoes, eavesdrops on more conversations, reads more minds, and hears more voices than the rest of us. And what a lucky break for us that he's had a pen laying around to document, describe, and share so many of them.
During his already prolific recording career÷officially five full-length albums and at least as many EPs released between 1997 and 2005÷the singer-songwriter has alternated, oftentimes from one song to the next or even verse to verse, between documenting the zeitgeist and retreating into the personal concerns with which we all grapple. But then, as the old slogan put it, "the personal is the political," and nowhere has that axiom received such a vigorous workout than in the unmistakable music of Dan Bern. His is the closest we have come to a pop music of ideas. On the very first song of his Chuck Plotkin-produced debut album, for instance, he outed himself as the Messiah. His work has only gotten more brazen and brilliant since, whether climbing into or cutting down the cult of celebrity, rewriting literary and cultural history at a whim and to his taste, or drinking in with one great gulp America's long landscape of idiosyncrasies (New American Language, also helmed in part by Plotkin) in songs that are at once flashy, flaky, unsentimental, comic, contradictory, absurd, dazzling, ornery, sometimes blushingly direct, and sometimes dreamy.
But Bern's sixth long-playing album, Breathe÷which again reunites him with big-league producer Plotkin÷is something entirely new for the artist. It takes the personal and finds in it a seedling of renewal. This isn't music that has 'big balls;' instead, it has a big, beating heart. In a way, Bern had always been 'arriving' prior to this, but with this album he has finally Arrived. The songs are not merely preternaturally observant, as they have always been, but feel fully present and made from flesh and blood. They trade in the verbal fireworks of the past and make a touching investment in the lives of their characters, who are often burned out and beat down by their overwhelmed lives÷even the Messiah, who reappears in the title track for His third act, seems more than a little downcast÷but who nevertheless somehow find the strength and courage to beat back at the world, even if only in small or symbolic ways. With a gesture of selflessness, Dan disappears into these song-sized narratives and allows his characters to voice their own÷and, by extension, our shared÷lives. In the process, he has given them and his songs and himself a reason to hope. And room to breathe.
Dan Bern & the IJBC - My Country II
This just in. The President is wearing no clothes. And with My Country II, Dan Bern sets out, in no uncertain terms, to reveal the stark naked emperor behind George W. Bush. Mission accomplished.
Dan has never been one to hold his tongue, particularly about vitally important current events, and lucky it is for an American public browbeaten and bullied by the Bush administration. Why mince words at this crucial historical juncture? Dan certainly hasn't on this trenchant EP, as empathetic as it is angry, and as comical as it is concerned for his country.
My Country II isn't your garden-variety Bush-bashing, fun as that sport tends to be. The record is pointedly direct yet amusing and musically on-target. Even fair-minded and clear-sighted Republicans will find things to admire on the album. Perhaps not the opening "President," a satirical alternate history that lampoons the Commander-in-Chief as clueless while setting out Bern's own version of what he'd do in his first 10 days in office. But all can appreciate the heartbreaking soldier's-eye-view of "After the Parade," moving sociology that looks more deeply than any newspaper headline or human-interest story ever could.
The record also connects to the storied tradition of musical dissent in an inspired fashion, as Dan sets Pete Seeger's poem "The Torn Flag" to music. And "Bush Must Be Defeated," goes the straightforward refrain of the rousing concert singalong that closes Dan's call-to-arms.
That pretty much says it all. Vote in November. It's your country, II.
Dan Bern & the IJBC - Fleeting Days
What does the fiercest, funniest, most tender-hearted folk-rocker on the scene do when he grows up? If it's Dan Bern, he makes Fleeting Days and caroms his scathing free-associative takes on pop, politics, sex and culture to a staggering new level.
Over the course of his five official recordings and the many EPs, performance-only specials, and soundtrack contributions the man and his lethal guitar have recorded since 1997, Bern has been finding the big picture in the small ÷ whether plumbing the infinite sadness of being Van Gogh's overlooked son or describing a horrific breakup through the gentle light of an Italian holiday. With Fleeting Days, Bern processes the monumental, sifting through the rubble of youth and devastating world events, and comes up with gems of insight and emotion.
Bern is reflexively literate, in the style of his favorite authors, including L.A.'s legendary bohemians Charles Bukowski and John Fante, urbane fantasist James Thurber, and yarn-spinning humorist Ring Lardner. Bern is in love with the power of words to turn on themselves, to frolic, to bite, and his strong, friendly voice can go from earnest to ferocious within seconds. But Fleeting Days is beyond folk and beyond irony. In "Baby Bye Bye," love is music and music is love, and neither has to be "good" to be full of meaning. A tired "Superman," unequal to saving this mess of a world, hangs up his cape and puts in a call to Lois Lane. With a full band behind him and a bag of tricks that encompasses a vast musical spectrum, Bern sounds as big as he thinks. The joyous synth-pop of "Jane" rejects Einstein's theory of relativity for the simple pleasures of thinking about a girl; the adamant "Crow" moves punkishly fast and takes a stand ÷ this is the sound of a man putting his psychological house in order, deciding what's important and chucking the rest. Bern finds that the rock and roll life is a "Graceland" of the mind, a place where everyone who loves music can live, with or without a living Elvis. And "Closer to You" might be a love song, but it's intense, ominous, and elliptical, strewn with broken glass like a potent, painful affair.
The nomadic Bern, a Mid-westerner-turned-Angeleno now residing in a small desert town in New Mexico, has always had an outsider's wry vision. He grew up in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, informed equally by the wholesome wheatiness which inspired his longtime passion for sports in general and baseball in particular, and his Jewish immigrant parents' artistic leanings (he played cello as a child) before decamping for the West Coast neo-folk scene in the early 1990s. His self-titled 1997 album stunned critics new to the sophisticated smart-ass sounds of Dan Bern; songs like "Marilyn," "Jerusalem" and "I'm Not the Guy" attracted swarms of fans tired of folkie self-righteousness and a general lack of fun. 50 Eggs produced the cult hit "Tiger Woods;" the double album Smartie Mine contained the raucously self-referential "Talkin' Woody, Bob, Bruce & Dan Bern Blues;" and 2001's intimate road epic New American Language deepened and widened Bern's purview with gorgeous, thoughtful fables of love, faith and regret. Fleeting Days comes after the scathing Swastika EP and travel diary book/CD World Cup. Dan Bern continues to bring the funny, but this time he's smuggling it within 13 musically eclectic songs, a wider worldview, and his most sophisticated recording to date.
Dan Bern - The Swastika E.P.
Just when it seemed as if the American scene couldn't get any messier, along comes Dan Bern to add his particular brand of spice to the fire with the brilliant new The Swastika EP. As always, the incomparable Iowan proves to be a lightning rod to the most sensitive and disturbing issues, the ones that we all are now faced with confronting in the post-9/11 version of America.
As on his previous full-length recording, the highly acclaimed New American Language, Dan uses the five songs here to say the things many of us think, few of us have the courage to admit, yet all of us need to hear about the current state of the nation. Not many songwriters are capable of eliciting the belly laughs that Dan does as he sings about the creeping totalitarianism of yellow terror alerts, government-sanctioned snooping, and stealth disinformation, not to mention the plight of the poor, unfortunately named "Al Kida" in Cleveland, Ohio.
But Dan also has bigger dictators to fry, and he does just that with "My Little Swastika," on which he reclaims the swastika as the ancient, sacred symbol of peace and prosperity, life and luck, that it represented for millennia before its appropriation and perversion at the hands of the Nazis. In the process he takes out Hitler and his whole propaganda machine with a potent, rockabilly of a right hook. "Lithuania," the EP's anchor and a longtime concert favorite of fans, too deals in both direct and oblique ways with the HolocaustŃof which Dan's parents were survivorsŃand the extraordinary Jewish contribution to America's intellectual and cultural tradition, from Albert Einstein to Groucho Marx to Leonard Bernstein to Sandy Koufax. It closes the album on an appropriately haunting note.
Dan Bern and the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy may not be intent on unilateral world domination. But they certainly have rock & roll nailed down.
Dan Bern - World Cup
In the past decade, few songwriters have proven as prolific, and at such a phenomenally high consistency of quality, as Dan Bern. Here we have the opportunity to glimpse into his method and madness, as every witticism and whim unfolds, as both the sour and sublime moods hit, and as he ultimately undergoes the process of birthing and molding all those amazing songs. That, at its core, is what World Cup provides.
World Cup is a travelogue, "A Sort of Travel Diary" that follows our intrepid guide, armed with a well-traveled acoustic guitar, a notebook, and strumming partner Slim Nickel, on a short two-man European trek÷through London and Spain, Italy, Switzerland, France, and The Netherlands÷in support of the previous year's New American Language. The book is ostensibly about international soccer, World Cup fever having overtaken the continent at the time, as well as the delights and frustrations of touring. But more fascinatingly, it is a journey through the mind and imagination of one of rock & roll's preeminent creative artists.
Through bits of lyrics, offhanded jottings, flash aphorisms, off-the-cuff sketches, and snatches of conversations, intoxicating portraits of the artist and the summer gradually take shape. In the cracks between, we are treated to some indelible flights of fantasy: carefully wrought set pieces during which Pablo Picasso's father becomes a pigeon-sketching artist, or Dan imagines himself as a spirited old Catalan bricklayer, or Mozart stars in a stand-alone time travel story, with a walk-on role for the ghost of Hitler.
Best of all, Dan treats us to five pristine new songs÷intimate, acoustic, troubadour tunes, simply recorded and decidedly somber, but in the romantic, mooning, starry-eyed mold of mythic old Europe.
Dan Bern - New American Language
Pick any term from the big bag of good adjectives ÷ "witty," "irreverent," "comical," "insightful" ÷ and solder it together with any term from the big bag of good adverbs ÷ "frighteningly," "monumentally," "thrillingly," "deeply" ÷ and you have the pretty good beginnings for an accurate description of the music of DAN BERN, without a doubt one of the most frighteningly witty, thrillingly irreverent, deeply comical, and monumentally insightful songwriters to strap on a guitar since rock music came of age and found itself thrust into its role as popular voice for American culture. And Dan's songs have always been steeped in the nation's pop culture, what with references in past songs to icons like Marilyn Monroe, Mother Teresa, Charles Manson and Tiger Woods, among others. If there is one thing his music has done above all others, it has shot to the heart of what it means to be a part of this hectic, fame-debased, information-overloaded world that we have created for ourselves. Dan's music allows us to see things that we have always seen, to feel and know things that we have always felt and known.
James Thurber on hallucinogens, Elvis Costello minus the spectacles, Jack Kerouac in a van spinning out hundreds of perfect songs rather than bursts of Zen jazz on the road, Dan never ceases to challenge through his music even as he makes it appealing and full of joy. He's part Dada (purposefully subverting expectation), part troubadour (spitting out clever, street-smart riffs on life), part stand-up comedian (helping us to laugh at our own comedy of errors) and part punk (lyrically impudent and unfailingly authentic). But he is all human and his songs rarely fail to touch the heart and the brain with equal impact, taking the time in the interim to stop at every point in between.
Dan placed innumerable great songs on his fine initial four albums, racking up critical hosannas virtually across the board while developing a rabid fan following on the back of an exhilarating, boundary-erasing live show, but New American Language may be his first truly incomparable and faultless recording. Leaving his folk roots choking in the dust storm kicked up by a powerful five-piece rock band, Dan uses the album to sort through the consciousness shift that accompanied the turn of centuries, to carve out an uncompromising path into the soul of the new American experience while also reaching out to encompass more of the world than he ever has before, all with an immaculate production and an instrumental depth that matches the deep reach of Dan's musings and observations. Stretching back and forth across the nation as if it were a canvas, he uses the full spectrum of America's soil to paint a lushly detailed, often heartbreaking portrait, taking in the highly commercialized Broadway of the "Thanksgiving Day Parade" with three-dimensional empathy, trying to hide out from the encroachments of life in the heartland, heading west to the burnt and broken landscapes of New Mexico, and hitting the "Alaska Highway," where he runs into Leonardo DiCaprio and Eminem, Britney Spears and Keith Richards. He crosses genre lines from tender folk-rock to full-on sonic outbursts to the rootsy bluegrass of "Honeydoo!," and he delves into emotional terrain, whether that of the Japanese protagonist of "Rice" or the Mafia or rednecks, that few songwriters have the ability let alone the temerity to tap with such understanding. New American Language imbues life among the earth-toned cathedrals of "Toledo" (Spain) and "a Budweiser, Budgetel, Bukowski kind of night" with the same tone of hope and beautifully resolved sense of acceptance. This is one language that everyone owes it to themselves to become fluent in.
Dan Bern - Personal History
Mount Vernon, Iowa, a picturesque heartland burg, certainly would not seem like the most logical locale to spark the artistic impulse. But it is exactly where the Eastern European migr parents of Dan Bern ÷ a concert pianist and composer father and a poet mother ÷ relocated upon casting their lot in America. And it is in that setting, surrounded by the power of music on the one hand and the power of words on the other, that Dan grew up, taking classical cello lessons, idolizing baseball great Willie Mays, and rooting for his beloved San Francisco Giants. The future songwriter gave up the cello once and for all, however, upon hearing the irreverent and bluesy strains of "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" at the age of 14, after which he picked up an acoustic guitar, started writing rock songs, and, as the old saying goes, never stopped.
By the time Sony offered him, then fresh off the anti-folk scene of the early 1990s, a recording contract, Dan had already developed a cult following and written thousands of songs. He released the Dog Boy Van EP and his first full-length album, Dan Bern, in quick succession to deserved journalistic acclaim. Whether he was offering the definitive eulogy for the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, debating the merits of his tunesmithery with the aliens who abducted him, imagining an alternate Hollywood in which Marilyn Monroe married Henry instead of Arthur Miller, or claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah, his initial forays into recording were brash, brilliant, and frequently breathtaking, and immediately heralded a songwriter of exceptional sensibility and a wholly distinctive vision. He followed those up with the equally fine Fifty Eggs recorded with folk peer Ani DiFranco. The album cemented his reputation in critical circles and increased the breadth of his underground following. Bursting with unrecorded songs, Dan parted ways with then-defunct Work/Sony and shortly thereafter made the 2-CD Smartie Mine available through his website. Sprawling, ambitious, and intentionally messy, it dug deeply into subjects both tame and taboo, but treated them with the same tongue-in-cheek insight, rewrote them in unexpected ways.
As superb as those first four albums frequently were, Dan's debut album for Messenger Records is also the first to really harness all the qualities Š from both a compositional and performance standpoint Š that make his music so vital. New American Language captures the artist in full-band mode, leading a propulsive five-piece through his finest set of songs yet. The combo injects a manic energy into the songs that makes their unique take on Americana come alive. Even growing up, his family frequently on the road, Dan seemed destined to make the whole of America his muse, and on New American Language the nation does indeed, in all its guises, stand as the album's focus. The songs careen from one coast to the other, like the van he coaxes to each festival and show, finding new angles, new niches, and new modes of expression along the way. Not only is it impossible to find a box, it is pretty difficult to find a country that can corral the brilliance of Dan Bern, but New American Language does.