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An Incendiary, Politically Fearless Lockdown-Era Album by One of This Century’s Funniest, Most Quotable, Pissed-Off Songwriters

Matthew Grimm‘s song West Allis topped the Best Songs of the Year list here in 2013. On the surface, it’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental account of a Wisconsin man, David Carter, whose dead body went undiscovered for four years after he’d shot himself in his own home. But as is usually the case with Grimm, there are many other levels at work here, one of them debunking the myth of how close-knit Midwestern communities actually are.

Before Grimm went solo, he fronted a raucously twangy, ferociously populist New York Americana-punk-janglerock band, the Hangdogs. That band’s 2002 release Wallace ’48 was rated best album of the year by this blog’s e-zine predecessor. Grimm’s new album Dumpster-Fire Days – streaming at Spotify – is his hardest-rocking and arguably most witheringly lyrical album in a long and incendiary career.

He opens with Salt of the Earth, which could be Steve Earle fronting Social Distortion. It’s Grimm’s What’s the Matter with Kansas:

We’re the peasants who cheered as heretics burned,
Put synagogues to the torch
Lined up to die for rich men’s right to own people,
Enforced apartheid a hundred years more
We gathered in the square to watch Black men hang
Like a Friday night football game
We’ll greenlight genocide long as some charlatan
Tells us it’s in Jesus’ name

Not quite everything here is quite as, well, grim. Tommy Keene Is Playing Kiki’s House, the album’s title track more or less, is a bittersweet look back at college life during the Reagan era. Much as it seems Grimm could already see the fascism that was coming down the pike, there’s an indominable joie de vivre here too. Compare your freshman reading and playlist to this one:

1986, Songs From the Film, JP finds it in the cut-out bin
We spin it again and again like it turned some secret key in ou restless brains
Niebuhr, Gramsci, Scruffy the Cat, Hobsbawm, Wiesel, the Mats
Social D, Marcuse, Del Fuegos, Dewey, threads that wove what we became

Aspire is more acoustic, with one of those Texas shuffle grooves the Hangdogs loved so much. It’s Grimm at his most cynically amusing: “Venture unto roads less traveled, unless you’re in the South.” Likewise, Reply Guy (The Dick Next Door) could be the Hangdogs in one of their janglier moments, a ruthlessly detailed portrait of a rightwing nut with an especially twisted secret – which turns out to be less than a secret after all.

In Be Saffiyah Khan, Grimm sends a shout-out to the woman who stared down a crowd of anti-Muslim bigots – and won. He reminds that a Nazi by any other name is still a Nazi in Nazis Agree With You, a perennially relevant broadside which also contains the album’s best musical joke.

Monument, a slow, seething number with organ behind the guitars, doesn’t namecheck Trump, but it doesn’t have to:

He vows to build a wall and paint the country red
He rips children from their mothers while they’re sleepin in their beds
There’s malice in his heart and there’s blood on his hands
We don’t need a monument to that kind of man

Grimm picks up the pace with a rare love song, Friney’s Song, and follows that with the simmering, Celtic-tinged anthem So Long, Good Luck and Fuck You:

I might not make it out alive so it’s down to you rise up
And smash the garbage system that led millions to their graves
Tell the toffs who wrecked the earth to recognize your actual worth
And shut this fucker down until they do

Stephanie King supplies harmony vocals in March, a gospel-inspired, Woody Guthrie-esque singalong for anyone who wants “to make a world of no masters and no lords.” Grimm closes the album with The Whirlwind, as prophetically vindictive a song as he’s ever written:

Did you think we’d take your hand and just go gently into a new dark age
That we’d turn our backs obeisant while you dragged our neighbors away,
That all your Russians and your fascist cult can save you from your sins
Well, count your days, open wide, and prepare to reap the whirlwind

And while we’re at it, let’s resolve that after this whirlwind is over, the world we inherit afterward – and we will – is one where guys like Grimm can play songs like this on a real stage in front of real people.

Matthew Grimm Gets the Crowd at Rodeo Bar to Shut Up, Sort Of

Rodeo Bar on a Friday night is not the first place in New York that you might think of for music that inspires close listening. And it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Matthew Grimm got the crowd there last night to shut up. But he did he did get them to quiet down some, and not by shushing them from the stage. He did it with his lyrics. “Nobody wants to hear a song about a little black dog,” he drawled early in the set, but an awful lot of people in the packed house did. That song, from Grimm’s lyrically rich and frequently hilarious new album Songs in the Key of Your Face, is less about the dog than it is about the kind of people who believe in a very magical furry friend who can do things like make those people immortal. “I haven’t fact-checked all of this, but it’s better than the world we know,” the Iowa songwriter deadpanned as he punched out chords on his Telecaster, backed by a tight, excellent pickup band including Butchers Blind‘s Pete Mancini on lead guitar, Mick Hargreaves on bass and a solid, four-on-the-floor drummer (was that Dave Stengel? From the far wall facing the bar, it was hard to see).

Grimm got his start in New York fronting the Hangdogs, who were playing one of their more-or-less annual reunion shows afterward (an only-in-New-York clusterfuck of bad trains, heavy pregaming and a long trek home afterward nixed any possibility of a review of that show – but here’s an idea of how it might have gone). That crew began in the mid-90s as a high-voltage bar band and ended more or less about ten years later, after the release of Wallace ’48, a brilliant, savagely political Americana rock record. Hangdogs shows were always a hang, usually a late one, Grimm assaulting the crowd with one-liners that got funnier and more vicious as the night wore on. This time out Grimm barely spoke to the crowd, obviously trying to pack as much of a musical wallop into his set as he could considering that the Rodeo usually doesn’t even have opening bands.

He opened with the scampering, anthemic Woody Guthrie’s 33rd Resolution, whose singalong tagline is “Wake up and fight!” Grimm’s songs can be witheringly cynical, but this time out there was a gleam in his eye: this is a guy whose time has come, and he knows it, and he’s been waiting for it since long before the Occupy movement existed. You wouldn’t think that a Rodeo Bar crowd would lean in to catch every line in a slow, determined polemic like The Enemy, but they did. It’s an illustration of how those in power play the divide and conquer game, pitting private sector employees against those on the public payroll. That Grimm could take such a prosaic, never mind divisive topic and make genuine, no-nonsense rock out of it speaks to his ability as a tunesmith and wordsmith. In front of a Manhattan audience who’ve been waiting to see the death of the despised Bloomberg political empire finally appear on the horizon, Grimm reflected a sense of triumph and renewal.

He brought up a pedal steel player to add some flickering honkytonk licks on a resolute cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty; later in the set, Mancini’s sinuous lead lines took centerstage on a smartly edited version of the Dire Straits depression epic Telegraph Road. There were funny songs from the new album – Back Booth, a wry reflection on a hookup that never happened, and Go the Fuck Home Mindy, with its LMFAO annoying drunk girl – and the unselfconsciously hopeful One Big Union, a theme song for a real labor union somewhere in the heartland. But the best song of the night, and arguably the most harrrowing one played in a venue anywhere in New York in the past year, was the closer, West Allis. It’s a shuffling highway rock tune about a guy who leaves his job – it’s not clear whether he’s retiring or he’s been laid off – then drives home, forwards his mail, pays the bills and shoots himself. Grimm’s vocals throughout the set had been pretty matter-of-fact, but finally, at the end of the song, he cut loose. “Four years, you think someone might have noticed something gone,” he railed: see, the guy’s Wisconsin neighbors didn’t see him around much, so he wasn’t missed in “four years of unshoveled sidewalks and unmowed lawns.” Being part of society didn’t seem to matter much to him – or did it? “He made his choice, we make ours, the world endures, “Grimm intoned. But,

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

Mancini ended the song with a single one of the plaintive guitar licks that wind up the album version. After that, even a Hangdogs show would have been anticlimactic.

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

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.