David Baerwald comes out
from the New Folk Underground
"Its a better Ryan Adams record than Ryan Adams
record," said a friend after hearing Here Comes the New Folk Underground,
David Baerwalds 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 its one that I couldnt have (and probably
wouldnt have) constructed. So go figure. But never having been one to shy away
from seizing upon someone elses 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, Id 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 Id 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 its 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 isnt to paint Adams into a corner as some
sort of hype-swollen phony icon, because hes a goddamn good songwriter; its
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
peculiaritys 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 Baerwalds 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 Fords 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 wed last heard from him on a record bearing his own name.
It had been since 1993s Triage - a dark, almost brooding, and
entirely claustrophobic record - that wed 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
Baerwalds 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 records title at the time. Triage
sounded then like the confusion and the frustrations of a man whod had enough of the
shit hed 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 mornings 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 Baerwalds 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 didnt 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 didnt invent those sentiments - it
merely sounds as though he did. Baerwald, like many artists, just spent his time sorting
out the lifes mess in public view.
It all started with what had to be the most unlikely hit single of the entire
1980s. 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 Davids came
a weird and caustic mix of music that was at once out-of-time-and-place dramatic honkytonk
and distinctly conteporary synth pop. Baerwalds 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. 1980s that buzzed around and befuddled Baerwald at the
"I still cant 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 80s, 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). Its a relevant comparison likely born of Baerwalds 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 well
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. "Weve been living here like exiles, weve been out here way
to long," Baerwald sings in it, "Watching goodness die a thousand deaths
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, "Dont ask me why
dont ask me why, cuz I
dont know." And who truly does? Baerwalds 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.
Its humble, seeking, yearning, but not afraid. Its filled with hope and a
gentle of-the-moment joy that never remains strictly Baerwalds 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, "its
weird how were able to just move on in life."
So it was the seemingly senseless death of a friends 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 dont 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" hed been working on for a new film and
a Stuart Little of all things ("Ive got nothing against Stuart Little,"
Baerwald chuckles as he recognizes how absurd it all sounds, "In fact I like him, but
I couldnt keep doing that sort of thing"). The next morning, when "those
planes flew into those buildings", Baerwald quit writing music for film. In fact,
hed 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. Its even more aggravating when the small club tour, complete with as crack
a supporting band as youre 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 hed set forth on the record. The haunting "Why" still
casts a cathartic glow across Baerwalds 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
"Why havent I heard of this guy?" asks a girl amongst the meager few on
"It makes you wonder," comes a quick response. "Why arent there
more people here? I mean, this guy is really good."
Baerwald and his band roll into a song that most of the thirty-somethings on hand
seem to recognize. "Welcome to the Boomtown" sounds as good as it does familiar
and the girl whod wondered why shed 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 havent you heard of his guy? I think to myself. And then I
figure, in the current cultural climate, maybe its better to just feel fortunate
that now, at long last, you have.