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David Baerwald comes out from the New Folk Underground

byKurt Hernon

"It’s a better Ryan Adams record than Ryan Adams’ record," said a friend after hearing Here Comes the New Folk Underground, David Baerwald’s invigorating return after a nine-year hiatus. The assessment is as sharp and concise a measure of the record – in contemporary terms – as you are likely to get from any corner, and it’s one that I couldn’t have (and probably wouldn’t have) constructed. So go figure. But never having been one to shy away from seizing upon someone else’s reckless disregard for their own keen line of intelligent observation, and certainly having never been too proud to steal such words and lay claim to them, I’d be lying if I said the thought (fleeting though it was) did not cross my mind to appropriate such a swell appraisal as my own; but in a (rather vain – and desperate) attempt to remain above such seedy fray with those I’d call friends, I merely co-opt its sentiment here. What can I say? The man is as right as he is real (and perhaps, still a friend) and Here Comes the New Folk Underground is a better Ryan Adams record than Adams’, but it’s also, to be fair, a better record than just about any the past year or so.

Here Comes the New Folk Underground is a mature and wonderful record that brims over with weary smarts and is clearly deserving of, at the least, a measured fraction of the interest, acclaim, and mechanized hype that wunderkind Ryan Adams has been receiving in recent months. That isn’t to paint Adams into a corner as some sort of hype-swollen phony icon, because he’s a goddamn good songwriter; it’s just that David Baerwald is a better one right now.

"It was an experiment," Baerwald says of the sounds on his new record with a chuckle, "One that was a probably a failure I guess, but it was an attempt at merging soulful Oakland R&B and some sort of weird acoustic almost Appalachian mountain music." It is the kind of humble self-assessment that is characteristic of Baerwald in even a short conversation. His banter, although an awkward mix of thoughtful silences, lost pauses, nervous chortles, and terse answers, never hides anything. And while his mid-sentence silences seem aloof and utterly peculiar they clearly do not exist for peculiarity’s sake – Baerwald is as forthcoming as any artist and is actually quite gregarious in his measured-but-never-deliberate way. .

Here Comes the New Folk Underground ("whatever the fuck that is" Baerwald says of his own chosen record title), failed experiment or not, actually turns out to be Baerwald’s rebirth; a musical burial of the Dashiel Hammet/Raymond Chandler-esque dark-noir that infected his earlier work so wonderfully and the compassionate resurrection of a songwriter who has more in common now with the empathetic slice-of-life artistry of contemporary novelists like David Gates and Richard Ford (Baerwald in fact, an odd amalgam of Lyle Lovett and James Woods in appearance, strikes a figure as the absolute perfect choice to play Ford’s anti-heroic protagonist Frank Bascombe ). This ‘resurrected’ Baerwald, as polished and brilliant as he was nine years prior to Underground, displays an immeasurable and astonishing growth since we’d last heard from him on a record bearing his own name.

It had been since 1993’s Triage - a dark, almost brooding, and entirely claustrophobic record - that we’d heard Baerwald ply his sly and subtle song skills just that way – with his own name taking the credit. And in the luminous decade of hindsight that Here Comes the New Folk Underground sheds upon Triage (as well as Bedtime Stories – Baerwald’s terrific first, and less agitated, solo effort) it is enlightening to hear just how literally Baerwald seemed to be taking the implications – the sorting and prioritizing of the wounded and dying - of his last solo record’s title at the time. Triage sounded then like the confusion and the frustrations of a man who’d had enough of the shit he’d seen go on around him in life – the everyday torments of a hand held out for money, or food, or drugs; the shoeless, newspaper wrapped, calloused and wounded feet; the bedraggled, damp with the morning’s dew that had settled upon them as they slept. Triage had sounded so fiercely political in a deeply personal sense, targeting no one but us as the villains. But now, after the New Folk Underground rebirth, Triage plays as a ferocious personal turbulence, the kind that precedes a crash, and, with good fortune, maybe a recovery; the record has evolved into the musical exorcism of a time, a place, an age, or a period of life which had been doomed to its own dreadfully certain past while giving way reluctantly to an very uncertain future. Throughout Triage everyone in Baerwald’s world had finally had enough - of everything. It was high time to sort things out, patch the wounds, salvage the salvageable, and then move on.

David Baerwald didn’t invent any of the sentiments that led him to a place on Triage where he too had had enough and was feeling a need to remove himself from all of those exasperating emotions for the next nine years. His was, in fact, the fairly quintessential American growth experience – born of a collision between the prevailing forces of commerce, survival, and selfishness, and a human yearning and capacity for compassion, and selflessness. No, he didn’t invent those sentiments - it merely sounds as though he did. Baerwald, like many artists, just spent his time sorting out the life’s mess in public view.

It all started with what had to be the most unlikely hit single of the entire 1980’s. Baerwald and friend David Ricketts had been tooling around Los Angeles with some songs they had constructed (Baerwald the lyricist, Ricketts the one with a never-ending musical wanderlust) and, via the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend path that these things tend to travel, stumbled into a recording deal with A&M as a duo cleverly calling themselves, of course, David + David. With the union of the two David’s came a weird and caustic mix of music that was at once out-of-time-and-place dramatic honkytonk and distinctly conteporary synth pop. Baerwald’s eyes-cast-downward songs about hopeful losers, down on their luck schemers, and everyday dreamers who were trapped in a life that none of them would ever be able to escape (although, within the narrow parameters of the choices they made – drug dealer, hustler, gambler, thief - escape is exactly what many of them believed themselves to be doing), defied the eclectic sounds surrounding them. It was as auspicious a debut as it was startling and the whole affair came to a bizarre boil when David + David found themselves on the pop charts with both a hit and a signature song, "Welcome to the Boomtown". A catchy-as-hell melody swamped what was, at its core, underneath the infectious Nuevo Wave groove, a story-song indictment of the go-go L.A. 1980’s that buzzed around and befuddled Baerwald at the time

"I still can’t figure out what it was about that song," Baerwald, who had not played it live as a solo artist in a very long time but has recently added a welcomed and stunning rendition of it to his superb live show, says. "I guess it was the chord changes," Baerwald laughs.

The success of Boomtown would ironically turn out itself to be illustrative of the American 80’s, as fleeting a success as it was sudden. Ricketts decided to explore an interest in television and film scoring, and Baerwald was left to pursue his rock and roll muse alone.

There are moments on The New Folk Underground when David Baerwald bears a more than passing resemblance to Randy Newman (sans the oft-cloying sarcasm and/or cynicism). It’s a relevant comparison likely born of Baerwald’s having himself spent the past eight years making a living by scoring songs for film and television; something that, as his Golden Globe nomination for "Come What May", a lush and sentimental love ballad (of which Baerwald told Billboard Magazine, "Obviously, people have felt those feelings in the past. The fact that I am not one of them is not relevant") from the film Moulin Rouge, would attest to, he had become very proficient and successful at. And while Baerwald will admit that his return to making music for a record of his own was bound and likely to happen eventually, yet it took a pair of horrible tragedies to help shape his new resolve.

Death, as it often exists in the comfort culture of our human experience, particularly our American human experience, is not only an expectation (or inconvenience) that we struggle with throughout our lives, but rather, in a spiritual/religious sense, it is often seen as a means to the end; it is the one opportunity that we’ll have, the belief goes, to pass through unto a far better world, a better existence devoid of the pain and suffering that conscious living certainly bring, a comforting kind of immortality. When death comes in its tidier forms – old age, a lengthy and anguishing illness –these beliefs are generally accepted as comforting truths. But when life defies any sense of such faith-based order and actually seems to betray it, when it steals away any imprudent notion that perhaps we can master deaths mystery and power, when the shock of unexpected tragedy – he death of a young child, the murder of the unsuspecting and/or the innocent - challenges our sensibilities and relegates any concepts of inner-strength to the brink of foolhardy naiveté, it is then that, perhaps, we are reminded of how fragile and short term everything truly is. And then, if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that our own deep-seeded fears and uncertainties rule the day

"That song ‘Why’ is really when I started this record," Baerwald says. He explains that the song was a sort of healing; a cathartic process undertaken in the aftermath of the death of a good friends seven-year old son. It is a moving song, but never bleak. "We’ve been living here like exiles, we’ve been out here way to long," Baerwald sings in it, "Watching goodness die a thousand deaths…we just keep on moving on." Never becoming a religious exercise, "Why" is fervently spiritual. "And you still believe in Eden, someplace better down the road." But then, "Don’t ask me why…don’t ask me why, cuz I don’t know." And who truly does? Baerwald’s honesty is as brilliant as the songs construction; a loping, easy-going, and soothing groove that sounds like catharsis, "Why" shares many of the best qualities of old Southern spirituals. It’s humble, seeking, yearning, but not afraid. It’s filled with hope and a gentle of-the-moment joy that never remains strictly Baerwald’s catharsis – he is able to effectively share that experience. But did it work? "Yeah," Baerwald says, pausing for what seems an eternal moment before adding, "it’s weird how we’re able to just move on in life."

So it was the seemingly senseless death of a friend’s child brought Baerwald around to his solo career – or at least gave it a kick-start. "That," Baerwald says, followed by another one of his pauses, "…and those planes going into those buildings." He says it with such a startling plainspoken matter-of-factness that you almost wonder what the hell he is talking about. In light of all of the rah-rah patriotism that tends to accompany any talk of "Nine Eleven" Baerwald sounds almost cold to the historic events of that day. Actually the opposite is true, Baerwald was deeply effected by what happened that day, he just happens to be one of the few folks who don’t drape the flag all over their recollections. He seems far more effected by the humanity of what occurred rather than being caught up in the political fury that has followed, and in the end, his compassionate rendering of how that September morning effected him seems more patriotic than most.

. "After those planes went into those buildings I was like, what the hell am I doing?" Baerwald says. The night before the 11th of September he was immersed in a "bouncy little tune" he’d been working on for a new film and a Stuart Little of all things ("I’ve got nothing against Stuart Little," Baerwald chuckles as he recognizes how absurd it all sounds, "In fact I like him, but I couldn’t keep doing that sort of thing"). The next morning, when "those planes flew into those buildings", Baerwald quit writing music for film. In fact, he’d never even finish that fateful Stuart Little song. "I quit," he says. "I just made a call and quit."

It’ frustrating that an artist as talented and interesting as Baerwald could roll out a new record and into a town like Cleveland, Ohio for a live show and barely be noticed. It’s even more aggravating when the small club tour, complete with as crack a supporting band as you’re likely to be fortunate to see and hear, is promoting both a record that deserves to be remembered as one of the better collections of songs this or most any other year, and the return of a voice that has spent far too much time away from doing what he does best. Here Comes the New Folk Underground, a commanding and masterful work of subtle perfection, transforms into an even more gripping document when Baerwald takes it to a live setting. Tonight, in jeans, weathered biker boots, carrying an acoustic guitar and drinking Makers Mark, he plays the songs in order, respecting the flow he’d set forth on the record. The haunting "Why" still casts a cathartic glow across Baerwald’s face, which is then set aflame by the "Sha-la-la" passion-plea that introduces the Van Morrison-ish "Compassion". The set marks itself as extraordinary and memorable by the time Baerwald and his New Folkies drift off into the melancholy retrospect of "Crash" – only the third tune of the evening.

"Why haven’t I heard of this guy?" asks a girl amongst the meager few on hand.

"It makes you wonder," comes a quick response. "Why aren’t there more people here? I mean, this guy is really good."

Baerwald and his band roll into a song that most of the thirty-something’s on hand seem to recognize. "Welcome to the Boomtown" sounds as good as it does familiar and the girl who’d wondered why she’d never heard of Baerwald now seemed to realize she had. She started to dance and mouthed every last word of "Boomtown" as she did.

‘Why haven’t you heard of his guy?’ I think to myself. And then I figure, in the current cultural climate, maybe it’s better to just feel fortunate that now, at long last, you have.