By Jim Walsh | Published Wed, Jan 13 2010 2:46 pm
In his liner notes to Patches and Gretchen’s 11-song sophomore stunner, Honeydogs leader Adam Levy writes: “I don’t think I’m going out on a ledge by arguing that Patches and Gretchen’s ‘Sugar Head Pie’ is a freak-out folk-punk masterpiece. There are a few contenders: Pavement’s ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’; Syd Barrett’s ‘The Mad Cap Laughs’; maybe some solo Roky Erickson. If Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams and Chrissie Hynde had a lost weekend of debauchery and songwriting, it just might look like ‘Sugar Head Pie.’ … The feel is classic but it’s never looked or felt like this before. No whiskey bottles, no Pentecostal churches, honky-tonk barstools, preachers, or dirt roads — instead it’s Sequoia and Trails of Tears, poisoned hot dishes, lonely trailer park moms, scab pickers, Minnesota lilac breezes, morphine gypsies in Sault Saint Marie.”
Levy’s assessment is dead-on: It says here that the most hypnotic rock record of the new decade has been delivered by an ad-hoc Minneapolis punk outfit led by one Gretchen Seichrist, a 40-something single mom who sings, swears and spits her Dylanesque poems with an old-school mystique laced with modern-world damage. A timeless album, in other words, for all those who still believe in such revelations, but while its roots invite comparisons (I hear “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Exile in Guyville,” “Salesman and Racists,” “Horses,” etc.), this is a post-nostalgia work that has its own center, its very own howl.
Backed by acoustic/electric guitars, tube amps, leathery drums, the occasional banjo-fiddle, and Terry Eason’s Crazy Horse benders, Seichrist sing-shrugs stuff like, “I always wanted to be raised by wolves and be the chosen one,” giving voice to every primal artistic urge known to human. Sing it: Everybody knows this is nowhere, everybody knows you can’t fake desperate, and in this case, desperation is the mother of invention, and great reinvention.
To that end, the swaggering barroom blast “Tired of Chicken” is the set’s mini-manifesto amidst many maxi-anthems, with the singer jabbing at all the jealous souls, real and imagined, who would take umbrage at her decision to not go quietly into that night of middle-age. Instead, by lurching into a career as a recording artist and band leader, she’s engaging in a very public pursuit of happiness that she knows, ultimately, may not bring happiness at all.
Still, the proof is in the pudding. Sounding like Kirsty MacColl in “Fairytale of New York,” the MCAD survivor and ferociously fecund painter bawls, “Just who am I hurtin’ if I get in one more a-va-voom before they lower the curtain?/And if it makes you feel better, I’ll soon be knitting sweaters/Eatin’ microwave dinners, with a cat on my lap and unbearable lonely winters.”
Playing for keeps
Recorded at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Studio in Sparta, Minn., there is something vaguely southern about “Sugar Head Pie,” from its hard-knock heroine to its worship of hallowed Native American ground to an intensely organic feel that at times feels like dirt and clay running through the listener’s hands.
“Woncha come and play sugar head pie with me?” Seichrist sings to her girlfriend-slash-would-be-playmate, yearning for a return to their childhood and a time when you made things for fun, not for sale. The dark side of that care-freedom rears its head in “Blood Suitcase,” an apology to her kids about the nuisance of looking for a new place to live — again. The drag is palpable, and when she sings, “I guess we’ll find out what is essential and what belongs to the past,” you can almost see the hobo’s bindle sticks slung over their shoulders as they hit the road.
That wanderlust also sows the seeds of genuine independence. “I’ve got to start thinking about myself/And I’m gonna do it all by myself … and I don’t need your help,” she sings on “Time of the Lilacs,” while “Black Market” rails at the “middle man” (indifferent record companies? lazy rock critics? paid-off deejays? one-night lovers?) who stand between her and her dreams. All of which would be so much predictable me-first angst in less nuanced hands, but when Seichrist seethes, “We’re not young, but we’re restless,” she does so for anyone of any age who has ever felt imprisoned by their own skin and wanted to “see a wheat field come to me for a change.”
And “Sugar Head Pie” is nothing if not sprawling. The 10-minute closer “Everything Is Indian” is Patches and Gretchen’s “The Wasteland” or “Howl,” in which white liberal guilt is recast as reparation hot and mournful. Here is the sound of someone tilling raped hallowed ground, traipsing over Native American landmarks and lakes, and communing with the spirits of the night. Make no mistake, “Sugar Head Pie” is a political record, in that the personal is political, and that we’ve all got our and our sins, individually and as a society. No wonder she sounds like the drunk village idiot, spewing her history lessons to deaf ears around Franklin and Chicago.
Masterpiece for the ageless
Trolling the brightly lit but brutally grim aisles of Blockbuster while fighting bronchitis and winter ennui the other day, I held in my hand no less than 20 (I counted) would-be time-killers deemed a “masterpiece” by some critic or another. Masterpieces, then, come cheap nowadays, or maybe not. Maybe there are so many DIY masterpieces being cranked out now that We the Inundated can’t keep track. All I know is that this is an important record and you should hear it.
You know a masterpiece when you hear it. One of those addictions you played the hell out of, start to finish, over and over. An album. A collection of songs written and recorded and sequenced with great care and consideration for the listener, the art lover, the reader, the lucky one who stumbles upon this aural glue that connects you with the past and future and nails what Jon Stewart was talking about at the Kennedy Center Awards recently, about Springsteen’s “ongoing conversation with his audience.”
That’s what I have with “Sugar Head Pie” — an ongoing conversation — and it’s a beautiful thing. At the moment, we’re opening a bottle of Malbec and cranking up the electric fireplace and talking about existentialism and the idea that, at any age, life is in fact meaningless unless and until you give it meaning. We’re talking about how people die and fall apart, but also about how they grow, change, figure things out, get better, richer, deeper.
We’re talking about how we make each other feel. How music makes us feel less alone, and we’re starting to wonder how people who don’t glean sustenance from art and music slog through this thing called life. We’re talking about how “Sugar Head Pie” unfurls like a great aural pin cushion snuggy, and how it already makes us feel wistful for this time, these first few weeks of the new decade, when the Twin Cities was awash in so much good new music it felt like the Roaring 10s.
We’re talking about how masterpieces inspire us. We’re thinking about what Anaïs Nin said about that inner voice you can’t ignore, and about how “the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
We’re needling each other. We’re daring each other. We’re calling each other up, every morning with coffee, and every evening with wine, and sometimes in the afternoon just before the recess bell clangs, just to see who can be the first to say to the other, “Woncha come and play sugar head pie with me?”