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The 15th album from the Twin Cities folk rocker kicks off with a bit of a shock: horns. The opening track, “Be My Girl,” is the sort of ecstatic pop you might find in a grade school musical circa 1965 in which a guy asks a girl for a date with the help of the marching band trumpet section. (He could just pass her a note, or put a frog in her lunchbox, but that wouldn’t be musical.) The song’s cheeriness is uncharacteristic for Israel, who normally sings about longing, losing and depression. But this is an unusual album.
Sir Dan has been creating folk rock for over two decades, rarely venturing outside his chosen method: sweet melodies, infectious hooks, jangly guitars. You couldn’t accuse him of being avant garde, but that wasn’t the point. It was always a quest for perfection. His songs are fine-tuned miniature masterpieces.
“Social Media” finds him spreading his wings, and it’s full of surprises. We get glimpses of folk rock and the rest is harder to classify. The songs never go where you think they will, but you’re glad they did.
This is also, arguably, his most danceable album. The credit goes in no small part to his longtime drummer David Russ, who’s in stellar form here. It also helps that the many guests include two members of The Suburbs, Steve Brantseg and Steve Price.
Recorded at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Sound studio on the Iron Range, it has a lush sound with synths, overdubs, psychedelia, scorching electric guitar and much more. There’s almost as much studio production as there was in “Sgt. Pepper.”
His previous album, 2018’s “You’re Free,” had some of this quadraphonic exploration but it’s more overwhelming here. Sometimes the solid wall of sound gets oppressive and you long for the rustic memories of just him and his guitar. Worry not, he’s already got a backlog of lo-fi albums, and solo acoustic is his preferred method of touring.
The second track, “125,” is hallucinatory hard rock straight out of 1969, using a riff similar to “Born on the Bayou.” Israel’s voice, the audio equivalent of a worn catcher’s mitt, alternates between normal and harmonizing with himself using a harsh transistor radio effect. Even more startling is Brantseg’s wailing lead guitar.
“Still I’m Lost” is the closest to a modern song, nothing rootsy here, but it soars to orchestral heights with thundering drums played by Peter Anderson. “Might as Well Be Me” starts out folksy, with Jon Herchert of Dark Pony (who also produced, engineered and mixed) providing slide guitar, and it builds into fast rock.
“Another Day” is short (two and a half minutes) but the closest to a basic Dan Israel song, amiable and engaging. “Tired,” unlike the title, is a brisk song that highlights Jon Duncan on the accordion and Hammond organ. “Alright” is a great dance song, rousing and catchy. “Here for Today” is driving, bluesy rock with a percussion section that may or may not be clapping hands.
Two of the songs have two versions each. (Why? Just listen.) “Just Can’t Take It” starts with delicate bell tones followed by delicate guitar chords, threatening it’s going to be dreary. (And yes, it’s a breakup song.) But then a fantastic drumbeat kicks in and it turns into another great dance number. Four tracks later he overdubs it with a rambling monologue, rap lyrics and other variations. The subject matter also changes; the monologue is about the frustrations of daily life while the rap is socio-political: “The now vanquished rivals read a verse from the Bible and the whole Armageddon begins.”
“Out of My Hands” is an emotional extravaganza with ringing bells, thundering chords and a military beat, about surrendering to fate: “Time for me to see if anything will ever come of all my plans … guess it’s out of my hands.” In the reprise, the final track, he surrenders his vocals to Tonia Hughes Kendrick, who turns it a stunning gospel number.
None of the songs have anything to do with social media, though there’s plenty of anxiety disorder. That’s how you know it’s a Dan Israel album. But he exorcises anxiety through music, whether with a full band and studio or just his voice and a guitar.
An album release is Friday, Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m. at Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge in Minneapolis. Katy Vernon opens.
Dan Israel performs in Duluth Thursday, Oct. 10, 6-8 p.m. at Ursa Minor Brewing.