Christopher David Hanson – In the Distance

Richard Thomas 

If Northern Minnesota has a Springsteen, it’s Christopher David Hanson. Not that their music is similar, but they’re the same type of earnest working class alpha male rebel rocker poet. Probably too many words in there to form a “type,” but I think the Springsteen analogy works since it feels like music that should be played in an arena. Until then, you can see the band that carries his name at regional bars any given week, at least now that the lockdown has eased up.

Hanson makes his home in Babbitt, deejaying for WELY radio and producing an album every year since 2014. This is his sixth (and a seventh is in the works) although due to the COVID lockdown, it’s a solo project. It sounds like a full band but he plays almost all the instruments. There’s one guest, Jill Burkes, who contributes violin and backing vocals.

With the band his music has always been a mix of country, rock and blues. On this album there’s more of a shift to country, mostly of the tear-in-yer-beer variety. But it’s earthier than most Nashville music and closer to outlaw country, reminiscent of Jerry Jeff Walker.

The first track, “Crazy is All We Got,” starts out like a generic country song, especially since it has the word “crazy” in the title. But it turns into a soaring rock song once the full instrumentation and shimmering organ kick in. The second track, “More Than Alive” has a slow, lumbering but satisfying pace.

“Things’ll” is a cross between blues and country. Hanson gets to show off his shredding skills on electric guitar, if all too briefly in one interlude. “Some things’ll give you grief, some things’ll pass you by, things’ll sparkle in your eye,” he half-sings, half raps, while Burkes provides multi-tracked backing vocals.

“Calm Pond” is the cheeriest and second fastest song on the album, a country hoedown with the “boing” sound in the background. The lyrics are wry, with sage advice such as, “Someone clear my search history when I’m gone.”

“Devil’s Lake” is a nearly six-minute story, but not about one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. It’s about pirates of the 17th century or somewhere thereabouts. It seems inspired by Ben Gunn from “Treasure Island,” though there are plot differences. Gunn was marooned by his crewmates while this character is the sole survivor of a sunken Spanish galleon. Inexplicably the ship’s treasure has washed up with him. (Maybe it exists only in his mind?) To protect it he vows to “dig a hole to hell and throw my treasure down to the devil’s lake.”

The song has a fascinating rhythmic sound effect like spring peepers that moves from one speaker to the other, giving the sensation of being surrounded by frogs. You might end up listening less to the story and more to the frogs, trying to figure out how the effect was done. I was sure it was electronic, but I asked Hanson about it at a recent show and he had some complicated explanation involving wood and metal. Sonically every aspect of the song is great, and even if it doesn’t rock, you’ll want to crank up the volume.

“Stubborn as Stars” is perhaps the perfect country song, in fact starting out as a meta-country song: “Ain’t enough songs about not breaking up / They left off the good ones to sing.” Maybe my interpretation is incorrect, but the subject seems to be about a guy killing time while he waits to reconcile with his love (not unlike another perfect country song, The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall”) but he won’t give in because he’s stubborn as stars. It’s a waltz augmented by Burkes’ violin and it builds emotionally by layering Hanson’s voice on multitracks.

 “Memories Escape Me” is a tear-jerker apparently about Alzheimer’s: “If I get lost ‘cuz my head won’t stop spinning, forget your name once again / Just know that I love you, remember me stronger.”

“Dirty Rainbow” is the fastest and hardest rocker on the album, though it’s firmly a country song. He references the Judy Garland ballad, singing, “A different shade of ‘Over the Rainbow,’ a little dirty and a little bit obscene,” though I don’t think it’s intended to convey a porno version of “Wizard of Oz.”

“Whisper” is a rock song, almost a companion piece to “Devil’s Lake,” since it has a similar pace, but crunchier and more electric. Thematically, it’s closer to “Calm Pond,” being about finding peace of mind. It actually is about a remote Minnesota lake (Whisper Lake near Babbitt) and there are teasing directions built into the words: “You can get there from an old logging trail, but that ain’t my favorite route.”

The album closes with “We Don’t Play That,” a short (barely over a minute) and humorous explanation about why the band doesn’t do covers: “Always asked to play someone else’s songs / And I guess I’m just saying we ain’t that kind of thing, always trying to polish up something bright and new … pouring out my heart, I hope I write a song for you.”

So that’s what to expect when you go hear the Christopher David Hanson Band, all originals. Whatever you do, don’t yell out, “Freebird!”

The album is available on Bandcamp and Amazon.