Release Date: 04.13.99
Record label: chartmaker
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
A Rare Jewel
by: mark feldman
"I wanna 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.
While being 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 Krautmeyer.
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.
Smartie 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.
What's really 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.
Smartie 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.