Savagely Funny, Politically Insightful Songs from Matthew Grimm, the Stephen Colbert of Heartland Rock

by delarue

On one hand, Matthew Grimm is true to his name: his songs can be devastatingly bleak. On the other, his new album Songs in the Key of Your Face is his catchiest and maybe his funniest, something of an achievement considering how savagely amusing his others have been. One reason why this one might be somewhat more lighthearted than his black humor-drenched work with the late, lamented, occasionally resurrected Americana rockers the Hangdogs, or on his first solo album, is that the Bush regime is over, at least nominally speaking. There are too many LMFAO lines on this album to spoil here: as political humor goes, this guy is several steps ahead of the Colbert Report.

Musically speaking, Grimm writes short, catchy , propulsive rock tunes with ringing guitar, tight bass and drums and a little piano and organ in places. He’s got a purist pop sensibility but loves country; sometimes Social Distortion comes to mind. Grimm gets in, makes his point, gets out, leaves you humming along and probably laughing. And his Iowa twang has returned since he more or less left New York

The album’s opening track, Woody Guthrie’s 33rd Resolution recycles that Cure hook that every lame Bushwick band has stolen and actually does something with it. Guthrie was a compulsive list-maker, and #33 turns out to be “wake up and fight!” Union Maid updates the old folk song I’m Sticking with the Union for the age of globalization i.e. the new slavery. In case you haven’t noticed, your boss is “making the case for you to know your place like back in the 19th century.” Then the fun starts. Little Black Dog is a wickedly catchy take on a canine deus ex machina “who saved us all from aliens, mortality and old men white men.” Grimm looks back on the days “When we used to get old and died, until that fateful pet therapy day, now we’re all 29 and we all get laid.”

My Lesbian Girlfriend is another funny one: she hates tv, he thinks “cable is a basic human right…she digs Tegan & Sarah where I’d rather shove chopsticks through my ears,” but at the end of the day they bond over a love of freedom and contempt for fascists. Likewise, the towering anthem Real Americans reminds how much we have in common despite all attempts by the corporate elites to keep us divided and conquered:

Sometimes it’s a storm, sometimes someone dies
And phone calls breed phone calls and potluck and pies
And if you need it someone’s got room
They don’t ask for your papers or voter ID
It’s from each others’ haves to each others’ needs
In small towns and cities, all colors and creeds
And mostly it’s just what people do

The album’s centerpiece, Enemy, has a similarly Woody Guthrie-esque insight and defiance, once again calling bullshit on the divide-and-conquer game. In the race to the bottom, if your enemies are the people who plow the roads and drive fire trucks and teach school and heal the sick, isn’t pretty much everyone the enemy? Grimm doesn’t preach – he leaves it to the listener to do the math and figure out the corollary of that equation.

Kickass Wake offers a keg party salute to a guy who “took a karmic bullet for your ass,” a life that “ended way too soon but that’s way more than you walking corpses do.” Back Booth offers a sardonic look back at a missed chance at hooking up with a girl. The funniest song here is Go the Fuck Home Mindy. It’s not one of the political ones but it’s about someone we all know. This girl is wall-hugging drunk, making no sense and annoying everyone within earshot. “I know it’s the pot calling the kettle drunk, but if the cops came, you’d get tased,” Grimm tells her knowingly.

He rewrites Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom (or, the Gates of Rhymney, if you prefer) as Ideology, a bitter chronicle of what happens “when one voice rules a nation ’cause they were born at the top of the pile.” He ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note with the highway anthem Out of the Darkness, which sounds a lot like fellow heartland rockers the BoDeans. There are also a couple of hard-charging covers here: the Townes Van Zandt classic Pancho & Lefty, and a doublespeed version of Dire Straits’ early 80s recession epic Telegraph Road, turning it into a desperate, Springsteen-esque escape anthem.

But the best song here, maybe the best song of the year, is West Allis. It’s the album’s most towering, epic number, a clear-eyed, sobering account of a suicide in this Wisconsin town that wasn’t discovered until after “four years of unshoveled sidewalks, four walls enclosing perfect desolation.” The guy gets laid off, “the days swept by like grey winter birds, and he forwarded his mail and paid the bills, and took out the gun, and he went to a place where nothing hurts.” The story is all the more shattering for being so matter-of-fact:

Maybe you’re your brother’s keeper not by code or creed or canon
But a simple hope that someone will be yours

Grimm’s implication is that, or lack thereof, had to be a factor in the guy’s decision to turn the gun on himself. The irony that such a haunting portrait of alienation would be the best track on this otherwise very funny album speaks as much to the strength of Grimm’s songwriting as to the state of the nation in 2013. Since his days fronting the Hangdogs, Grimm has been a fixture on the year-end best-of lists at this blog and its predecessors on the web and elsewhere; look for this one here in December if we make it that far. Grimm and the Hangdogs are playing one of their infrequent reunion shows this Friday Sept 13 at Rodeo Bar.