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This album came out in late 2022, but it’s more of a 2023 album. Well, specifically, I’m thinking of one song. It’s the final track. It’s called “The Hang of It,” and if it doesn’t become The Great American Summer Song of 2023, then America is missing out, big time.
Holy crap, it’s insanely catchy. A rousing mix of Chuck Berry, Beach Boys and Nick Lowe, it’s the kind of anthem you crank up while on the road, and it’s got great guitar work from Steve Brantseg of The Suburbs.
You’re sorely tempted to clap along, but if you’re doing the driving, just sing along at the top of your lungs: “Hey, gettin’ out of the house, I’ve been crazy as a loon, I’ve been quiet as a mouse.”
Really it’s about getting the hang of life, as he says in the chorus: “There ain’t no grand solution, there ain’t no perfect fit, it’s just the normal confusion, but it ain’t so bad, once you get the hang of it.”
Okay, I just had to get that out of the way as my clear favorite. The rest of the songs are pretty solid, too.
This is the 17th album the Twin Cities folk rocker has released since the late ‘90s, and it may or may not be his best (there’s not a misfire in the bunch, so why make it an intramural competition?).
It’s not quite his most polished; that award goes to his 2019 album Social Media Anxiety Disorder, which is so produced and fussed-over it feels a bit encased. His rapid 2020 follow-up Social Distance Anxiety Disorder and the 2021 EP Late at Night got overlooked in the COVID era, but their stripped-down production is very effective.
This latest album is somewhere in between. Recorded and mixed at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Sounds Studio in Gilbert, it has the perfect balance of top-grade production and something performed in a garage.
The opening track, “Happy For Now,” is also catchy, but is somewhat tempered by its lyrics. It’s not about happiness so much as longing for it: “I’m gonna try to be happy for now, even if I really don’t know how.”
The lyrics are wry and insightful, recognizing that the problem is that he can’t stop (like most of us) being so goddamn self-critical.
“I could beat myself up today / Think of the reasons that I don’t make the grade / Yes, I could find some kind of failing in everything that I do.”
And yet the music is snappy and upbeat. Is the song half empty or half full? The artist invites you to look at it either way.
The second song is the title track, “Seriously,” and it’s a seriously angry song, expressing frustration over – everything. While it’s less melodious than the usual Dan Israel song, more harsh and grating, it’s also the hardest rocking and most cathartic.
Fitting that the next track, “How Do I?” is, all of a sudden, quiet and soothing.
“I’m in New York” returns the tone to rocking. Despite its title, it’s like Neil Young in country mode, complete with harmonica provided by Mattson.
Immediately without break it segues into “Taking the Fall,” which feels like the same song (the first line references New York City), just shifting gears to something quieter.
While all these feel like classic Dan Israel tunes, I especially enjoyed the surprises that venture outside his normal territory, like the use of cello on “How Do I?” and that weird floaty synthesizer in the background on “Taking the Fall.”
“Set Each Other Free” is where the album reached a state of nirvana for me. It begins well, with guest female harmonies from Katie Gearty (of Sunshine Committee) and Colleen Martin-Oake (Lolo’s Ghost) but kicks into high gear when they start singing “ooh la la la.” Fond memories of the movie School of Rock, perhaps?
Ditto for the next track, “Drove So Far,” which is pleasant folk rock in the first half, buoyed by Peter Sands’ keyboards. Then drummer Dave Russ shifts the beat to what almost seems like another song, taking it to a higher rocking level.
“Take Off Again” begins with chords and a beat similar to the previous track, almost making you think it’s the same song. But when he starts singing, “I just hit the road,” it hits those sweet notes that raise the hair on the back of your neck. Then Sands’ keyboards pushes it up an even higher notch.
“I Quit” is the second-angriest song on the album (you can guess what rhymes with “quit”) but it’s such a fast, driving rockabilly song you might not notice. Mike Lane’s bass shines here, counterbalancing perfectly with Brantseg’s crazed guitar.
All this builds up to the climatic finale, “The Hang of It,” which is distilled musical joy. Which makes you wonder why he’s having trouble being happy in the first track. Maybe he just hadn’t written the last one yet.