Midwest Soul Xchange are a Wisconsin-based musical duo comprising of songwriters Nate Cherrier and Ryan Summers. Having been friends for nearly twenty years, it was only recently that they decided to collaborate. Together, utilizing their various respective skills, they co-wrote, recorded and produced this eleven track album which is destined for release on November 24, 2015.
Musically, they aren’t that easy to define. Their music fuses the authentic old-school Americana of The Band, the melancholy folk of Simon and Garfunkel, post-66 period Beatles and the harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash with modern Americana like Bright Eyes, Mercury Rev and The Decemberists. Then throw in a little prog rock/psychedelia in the mix and you’re nearly there.
First track, Set The Course For Common Worlds, is the perfect opener, encapsulating the musical alchemy of Midwest Soul Xchange. Elements of folk, country and rock blend with warm, rich vocal harmonies, their prog-rock influence manifesting in the subtly shifting time signature. It’s a heart-warming ‘come together’ type message that sidesteps cliché in the way R.E.M. were past masters of.
The second track Roots seems aptly named, as this music seems so natural and organic that it’s hard to believe it didn’t spring from the ground, fully formed. Lyrically, it’s somewhat oblique, seemingly written from the perspective of Mother Nature herself, in the first person. It seems to portray the power of nature (“I am strong, standing tall in the waters“) but also hints at a bleak future, possibly due to man’s rumination of the environment (“Don’t look now, but the waters are rising, and the sky looks so empty over the hills…”).
Truth Attention, the third track, begins with a haunting, minute long introduction before developing into the first of three direct and pointedly political songs on the album. It’s about the power of the media and the spread of misinformation through distortion of the truth: “I’m through making sense of the lamentable media lens….the favors are set from a call to the person behind it all….”. Musically, it’s as powerful as the words, with a simple but effective hook repeated between the vitriolic verses.
Next track Revolt of the Guards is evidence of their more mystical, Eastern musical influences (they cite 90’s psychedelic rockers Kula Shaker). This influence manifests in the insistent Indian-style percussion and exotic sounding vocal melody. Lyrically, it is about American imperialism and conjures some powerful imagery: “His highness sits atop a throne of skulls while the guards are watching on…”. The last lines of the track are where they derive the album title, and so this song could be considered the album’s centrepiece.
The following Occupy The Piper continues the political theme, dealing with financial corruption and inequality in society: “In here your up side is down-size, we cook the book, defend the crooked…”. It again employs C, S & N style vocal harmonies which add melodic weight and power to the searing truths in the lyrics.
Kings Among Kings is another album highlight, featuring a beautiful accordion melody over picked acoustic guitar (possibly 12-string). The vocals are understated, with a tone that brought to mind Mike Mills from R.E.M. Lyrically, it looks back to a happier time that ends sadly, portrayed in poetic words: “Now the choice of the boy deceased in so many words is the living ghost of regret to the man…”.
Seventh track Sun Dried carries on the Eastern vibes from Revolt of the Guards, with lead guitar that brings to mind The End by The Doors. The gentle, poignant She Flies and adjoining track The Return seem to deal with death and our mortality: “We all have to fall from that branch to fly away, to fly back home…”.
Has Anybody Seen Bob? is as delightfully quirky as the title suggests. It brings to mind the surrealism of Syd Barrett’s songs with the early incarnation of Pink Floyd, combined with the dark humour of The Pixies’ Black Francis: “I wonder if he’s sad and lonely, I wonder if he’s just getting by, I wonder if he has any money left cause he still owes me $63.05…”.
This quirkiness extends to the music, with a real 60’s psychedelia vibe created by a concoction of organ, synth brass and a brilliant lead vocal halfway between Bob Dylan and They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell. Throw in some wonderfully left of field chord changes, some gorgeous harmonies and you have a song of real charm that would have fitted in perfectly in 1967, but at the same time transcends pastiche.
Four Score and Seven To Go is the final song on the album and it’s a lovely way to finish. The title is based on a phrase used in Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg speech (Declaration of Independence), and as four score and seven means 87, I take the song to be about America and the years remaining in this century. Again, this reflects the album’s title, bringing us nicely full circle. It is blissfully mellow, with hymnal, Fleet Foxes harmonies and a quirky 6/4 time signature that flows perfectly. There’s a world-weary melancholy in both the music and the words, but also a hope and optimism for the future.
Overall, this is a rare jewel of an album that achieves the artistic holy grail of finding the midpoint between the personal and the universal. On the one hand, it’s a cultural snapshot of America in the early 21st century, but it also deals with the timeless themes of the human condition: money, power, war, love and death. With New American Century, Midwest Soul Xchange have alchemized their many influences and forged the sound of New Americana.
Verdict: 9.2 out of 10