our score: 5.0 out of 5.0
spread my colors around," exclaims Dan Bern in the title track
of the two disc, 27 song extravaganza that is Smartie Mine.
And he isn't joking - this talented young acoustic guitarist who
has often been pegged as a Dylan imitator has unleashed a far
more varied outing than either of his first two and a half efforts
(the half being the 1996 EP Dog Boy Van, and the two being
his '97 eponymous debut and 1998's Fifty Eggs). Smartie
Mineis available through Bern's website, at his not-to-be-missed
concerts, and soon, according to the website, at "select record
stores." What a pity, for this is a double album that deserves
the mass exposure it will probably never get.
a Dylan imitator would still put Bern head and shoulders above
most current singers merely because he chooses his influences
well, Smartie Mine ups the ante by enlarging upon a virtual
folk-rock smorgasborg of new ideas. Already known to be compulsively
fascinated with the figureheads of 20th century American pop culture,
primarily those in entertainment and sports, Dan Bern has taken
his idols to new heights with cutting, tell-it-like-it-is narratives
such as "Gambling With My Love," "Krautmeyer," and "Talking Woody,
Bob, Bruce and Dan Blues." On "Gambling," Bern frames a relationship
on the rocks around a sports fan / playwright's obsession with
Pete Rose and whether he deserves to be in the baseball Hall of
Fame. The hilarious "Krautmeyer" theorizes that Charles Manson
wouldn't have had his followers had they known his true last name.
On "Talking Woody…" Dan Bern frames himself as the savior for
Bruce Springsteen's ailing career and does a scarily-accurate
rendition of The Boss' singing voice.
It isn't just
Dan Bern's penchant for an original subject that makes him so
fascinating, but also the way in which he frames those subjects.
Not since… well, not since Bob Dylan has there been a writer who
can tie so many seemingly unrelated concepts together so brilliantly
and effortlessly in the context of a five minute song. "Krautmeyer"
brings Marilyn Manson into the picture and suggests that had he
wanted his concerts not to be cancelled (by "adults with straws
up their asses," incidentally), he should've been called Marilyn
But the best
example of this is "Tiger Woods," which goes for the lowest common
denominator. "I've got big balls" begins this paean to several
of Dan's heroes, and little by little this three minute gem brings
in the rest of the pieces to the puzzle. First Muhammad Ali's
seminal quote "It ain't braggin' if it's true," then the story
of a friend whose ambition in life is to "go down on Madonna,"
(and when he finally does his life loses its purpose) then the
eternal question of when a girl doesn't look at you, does she
like you or is she ignoring you, and last but not least, the only
way to find out the truth is to ask her "which one are you / do
you like me or are you ignoring me?" Which, in turn, takes one
big pair of big balls. "Big as the swing of Tiger Woods." Brilliant.
Mine isn't all just fun and games, however. Dan Bern tackles
some pretty heavy subjects here, all with his signature deadpan
sense of humor, but on the deeper material, his bluntness turns
into breathtaking honesty. The anti-capitalist tear jerker "Ballerina,"
the desperate "One Thing Real" and the disc-closing "True Revolutionaries"
aim very high to make grand statements, but surprisingly deliver
the goods. The moody, erotic "Hooker" beats a bluesy three note
bass line into the ground and does just what it sets out to do
("You gave me attention / and I wasn't your pa"). He even tries
on funk for size on "Simple," sequenced beautifully after "Ballerina"
to release the tension at the end of the first disc. "Two Month
Affair" is great too, a wistful ballad of heartbreak that rivals
anything this side of Van Morrison. Covers of Lightnin' Hopkins'
"Airplane Blues" and the Beatles "Blue Jay Way" don't detract
from Bern's own genius either, but rather supplement it and show
that this a man who has listened to it all and made some very
good choices about who to imitate.
fascinating is just how good every single song is from start to
finish. Even the tracks that don't grab you at first have their
merits. What for Dan Bern is a throwaway - a cute little ditty
like "Dark Chocolate" a manic Klezmer jam like "Murderer," or
an angry rant like "Beautiful Trees" - would be the highlight
of many others' albums, or even careers.
Mine is one of those albums that you go back and listen to
again and again, discover not just words or chords but entire
songs you hadn't quite noticed before, your favorite one keeps
changing from year to year. it's the kind of album that can elicit
intense discussion, debate, perhaps all out war over the merits
of one song over the next. In a simpler era, if there were not
so many other entertainment alternatives around, Smartie Mine
could conceivably change the way we see the world. It ain't braggin'
if it's true.