Paul Seeba: Mitchell Yards

Paul Whyte

Paul Seeba currently lives in St. Paul but is originally from Hibbing. His latest album “Mitchell Yards” brings in aspects of folk, pop and country that make references to area history and other subjects such as traveling, relationships and life.
As far as history is concerned, the first song picks right up on it. The song, “Mitchell Yards,” opens up with a great sounding mix of banjo, harmonica and lap steel as well as other instruments you’d expect such as the acoustic guitar. It should be noted that this album references trains a number of times throughout. The percussion provided by local musician, Greg Tiburzi, keeps an upbeat chugging of a train feel. The song is inventive as certain instruments could be compared to the sounds a train makes; the lap steel may represent the brakes of a train and the harmonica emulates a train’s whistle.
Besides the song obviously being about a young boy becoming an engineer of a train, on the first couple of listens it’s hard to understand exactly what is going on with this song other than that. It turns out some aspects of this album are really meant for people who know their Iron Range history. The chorus goes, “Look at all the fast trains pulling all the cars/heading on down to the Mitchell Yards/look at all the fast trains pulling all the ore/heading on down to the World War.” The Mitchell Yards were a key hub in shipping ore to the ports on Lake Superior and they were especially important in providing iron during two World Wars. The song indicates that a young boy actually might be asked to work on the railroad since, “everybody gone to fight in D-Day.”
The next track, “Blind Man Sees,” seems to be about becoming more aware of world events. It details a man sitting in a hotel room watching a football game, but then it makes mention of world news events such as Iraq invading Kuwait and the Berlin Wall as if he’s waking up to what is happening in the world. The musicianship of the song is good and the lap steel once again shines on this track. There are sometimes unusual choices made on this album as far as minor instrument touches to the mix. Towards the last half of the song, there is a guitar with a decent amount of phaser effects (an oscillating effect that somewhat mimics a rotating speaker such as found in organs) that pans back and forth when listening to the track with headphones. The phaser guitar seems to detract more than add to the song but it’s not too over the top.
The track, “Mitchell Yards,” was pretty easy and quick to research and pick up on. With the track, “Science Fair,”  it also requires research if you’re not fully familiar with the area’s history. I’m left wondering if this is kind of cool to make the listener have to Google key words they get from a song to understand it or if it’s kind of annoying. I’m guessing if you were to see Seeba live he’d probably give a run down of the history about a song before playing it so the listener wouldn’t be totally in the dark. If you were to give this CD to someone out of the area who did not have internet access they would have little clue to what “Science Fair” is about. A good example to compare this song to is the perhaps most well known song about the area of all time, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by Gordon Lightfoot. The difference is that you could give that track to someone in England and they’d have a pretty good idea about what that event in history was all about after listening. With “Science Fair,” not so much.  
The first line in the song goes, “Mesaba Park/Communists strung all over America.” It turns out Mesaba Park was a center for festivals, fairs and political gatherings (particularly for the Farmer-Labor party) in the Iron Range during the 1930s. The song goes on to get into “The FBI/black limo on the Iron Range/the FBI drove my teacher off the road.” During the anti-Communist McCarthy era of the 1950s the FBI started to intimidate and harass people associated with the park which led to a slump in activity there. The park once again gained growth during the anti-war and feminists movements of the 1970s.
To continue on unusual choices for certain things instrumentally in the songs, the next track, “Kalaklan River,” is fairly unique as it has a tuba in it played by Steve “Boatman” Lah. Part of me wanted to say, “did this track really need a tuba?” Well, not exactly, but why not? It makes this already swinging song more fun.
On the track, “Guerneville,” it is a little perplexing if Seeba is being fully serious. The mannerisms of his vocals are quite a bit different than the rest of the album. For those who may have watched South Park think the episode where they say “They took our jobs!” to get an idea of the vocals on this track. “I’m going back to Guerneville/it don’t matter what they teach you in school/I’m going back to Guerneville/traded my flag in for the red, white and blue,” goes the chorus. I’m at a loss of what this song is getting at. Upon a Wikipedia search of Guerneville, CA, it is apparently quite progressive and has a very accepting LGBT community. It leaves me wondering if this is the right Guerneville and what Seeba’s experience with the town is.   
As far as a pop/folk/rock/country album, “Mitchell Yards,” is certainly different. Take a look at the first line of the last track, “Dust Bowl Annie,” to get an idea why this album is a little bit out there lyrically. “Dust Bowl Annie she used to haunt a Western town, then scientists found some DNA and brought her back to life.” Other clues indicate that she died “in the storm of ‘35” and that she listens to the trains. The song itself is simple and pretty with great harmonica parts. There’s a story going on here, but it’s not readily understandable and after several Google searches getting through this album, do I want to do more research just to be able to fully appreciate what is going on? Dust Bowl Annie is based on the true story of the tale of a 12 year old girl who goes through hardships on an Oklahoma Dust Bowl farm in the 1930s. Her account is detailed in the book, “Angels in the Dust.” I thought about contacting Seeba to get input on what some of the tracks are getting at but then decided to see if I could make sense of this album on my own.
As far as the musicianship of the album, it’s terrific, and it should be. Seeba is backed by Duluth musician, Greg Tiburzi on drums as well as Rich Mattson on the bass. Jake Hyer plays fiddle on several tracks and it’s everything you’d hope for on a country/folk album.
The album was recorded by Mattson at Sparta sound and production wise most of it is well done. There are certain parts where a guitar is panned off to one side or another and it has a repetitive lead pattern that eventually gets a little tiresome in a couple of songs. In the track, “Dog Don’t Hunt,” there is a guitar lead towards the middle and it would have been alright and then it just lacks sustain; the notes fall flat.
“Mitchell Yards” is an atypical folk/country/rock album. While a lot of music that it could be compared to genre wise often will go more towards a rowdy/drinking angle, or a sad angle, or both, a fair amount of this album delves into specific historical eras. One thing I wish that would have came with this album would be lyrics and liner notes. It just has a cardboard sleeve which lists the track titles and gives the band and production credit. It also notes that “The themes in these songs are of heartache, inner compasses, Northern heritage, transport, recession, unique places, lasting relationships, finding trouble and childhood reminiscing.” It just might take some research to discern which is which.