Rock? Americana? Folk? Blues? After listening through Are You There, I’m still scratching my head. The album comes from the collaborative group Minnesota led by singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman. It’s impossible to fit into any convenient category, so I’ll stop trying. Instead, I’ll talk about the album itself.
First, what is Minnesota? Beyond being a state northwest of the Great Lakes in the United States, Minnesota is the latest collaborative effort between Himmelman (Grammy-nominated for 2008 Best Musical Album for Children for My Green Kite) and filmmaker David Hollander (TV’s The Guardian and indie film Personal Effects). The duo has worked together before on Hollander’s series Heartland, but this collaboration is more about the music than the visuals, playing with social questions, and putting even more emphasis on the stories behind the melodies and arrangements.
Himmelman’s effortless shifting between fast and slow, dramatic, loud, and quiet moments throughout the album remind me a bit of Peter Mulvey’s deft touch with acoustic guitar and lyrical design as well as the underlying electric sighs of groups like Cowboy Junkies who manage to draw out the emotion of a song through melody and tone. But along with Hollander, Himmelman is joined by a bevy of talented musicians: Jake Hanson (Halloween Alaska) on guitar, Noha Levy (BoDeans/Brian Setzer) on drums, Jimmy Anton (Johnny Lang) on bass, Jeff Victor (the Honeydogs/Andrew W.K.) on keyboards, and the haunting, emotive vocals and harmonies of Kristin Mooney and Claire Holley.
It’s an interesting mix and one that really does defy easy categorization. The ensemble moves seamlessly from the light acoustic guitar of songs like “Moths” to the fuller, circus-like arrangements of “Arabesque,” to the piano-driven and electric guitar blues of “Death by Snakebite”.
The guitar riffs of songs like “Help Me Build a Ladder” and “Call from the Road,” whether quiet or catchy, manage to play regularly in my interior soundtrack. The questioning lyrics of “Call from the Road” ask the question of all relationships when the partners have been apart for too long. “Why don’t you answer my call … from the road?” Maybe you’re bringing in the groceries or maybe you’re not there at all.
“Help Me Build a Ladder” expresses a wistful hopefulness. “Help me build a ladder/To climb out of this hole….” Sometimes we all need a little help to make our way home again. “Help me brother/Help me sister/Help me Lord ‘cuz no one gets outta here alone….” It’s a message we all should remember now and again.
“Behind Me” is all about gratitude and simplicity I wish I could achieve personally. “I don’t need no diamonds/No special recognition/Don’t need more than both my hands can hold … nothing puts my mind at ease/Than when I know that she’s behind me.” This is a song about love and along the way, there are some rich harmonies from Mooney, Holley, and Himmelman. (For more harmonies, check out some parts of “1000 Blackbirds Fall.”)
“Death by Snakebite” is harder, with a simple, beautiful piano melody behind it that the group plays around with through guitar, feedback, and a driving drum beat. “Guess I lost my concentration/Damn thing bit me in the vein/It’s an ice cold sensation/Equal parts pleasure and pain….” Though the lyrics may be dark, the blues riffs echoed throughout on acoustic and electric guitar pushes this one regularly to the top of my playlists.
Are You There manages to express itself in a myriad of ways, but boils down to the trials and tribulations of the human condition. Love, despair, hope, longing, doubt… And the crew of Minnesota manages to evoke all of those emotions and more.
For more about the band, be sure to check out their website MinnesotaBand.com and pre-order the album to be released on November 6, 2012!