In last month's review of Jim Dickinson's new CD, I wrote about the dearth of "characters" around today, especially in music. Dickinson, however, is a holdover from another generation; one of the truly unique individuals of a more contemporary era is Fred Eaglesmith. His website describes him as a songwriter who "…writes about Everyman--truck drivers, snowplow operators, small town boys--with authenticity and poignancy."
Which is fine as far as it goes. It covers the aspect of his art that makes him a cross between Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen. It doesn't tell you how these songs could only come from someone with the eye of an Edward Hopper and the ear of an Elmore Leonard. It neglects to mention the wickedly dry sense of humor that underlies much of his songwriting and overlays most of his live shows. And it doesn't inform about the deep artistic integrity of the man. You can get a sense of that from Frank Goodman's great interview with Fred, available in the archives.
Scott Merritt has produced Fred's best CDs, 50-Odd Dollars and Lipstick Lies & Gasoline. Supplying a unique sonic atmosphere that enhances at every turn, while retaining a crazed live energy, Merritt turns Eaglesmith's great songs and great performances into great records. Some of Fred's fans--the loyal Fredheads--have been unhappy with that sound, no doubt preferring the audio-verite of Eaglesmith's live recordings. Their last collaboration, Dusty, apparently raised the ire of more than the usual amount of Fredheads, with its emphasis on keyboards, and ballads. It was nonetheless a brave and deeply affecting work.
Not one to completely knuckle under to his fans (see said interview), Fred has returned to a more familiar sound for Milly's Cafe, with Merritt still mixing (and adding some crucial parts). This may be a partial bow to the Fredheads, or may be because, as Fred has said, "It takes a year to do a record with Scott." The result is sort of live sounding, with just a hint of the Merritt magic. More intriguing is the relentlessly downtempo and melancholy attitude of the songs--not a barnburner in the bunch. Is Fred getting dispirited after over a decade on the road declaiming the death of small town life and the hits taken by the little guy? One would hope not.
Though a weariness seems to pervade Milly's Cafe, the Eaglesmith brilliance is still evident in more than a few songs. "Rocky" details the rocky (no pun intended) relationship of two old (assumed straight) cowboys, with all the drama and detail of Brokeback Mountain. "The Rains" offers an apocalyptic vision of a town gone berserk in the deluge that follows a killing drought. "18 Wheels," "Kansas," and "Thinkin' 'Bout Her," each chronicle heartache in absolutely unique and separate ways, with all the exquisite observations that make Fred Eaglesmith the roughneck poet that he is.
If you don't know Eaglesmith, Milly's Cafe may be a tough place to start--begin with 50-Odd Dollars or Lipstick Lies & Gasoline instead. Once you do know him, this record is a must-have addition to his collected works.
Don't let the bastards get you down, Fred.
• Michael Ross (Fredhead)
check out our interview with Fred