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.