Twin Cities Bards

Maybe it’s the Scandinavian influence, but Minneapolis is probably the cleanest rock ’n’ roll city in America. I remember the refreshing lack of pollution being my first impression, when I began visiting the Twin Cities in the mid ’80s, hanging out on the fringes of the then-verdant rock scene, back when the Replacements, Husker Du, Babes in Toyland, Rifle Sport, Breaking Circus, and Soul Asylum were still around. I was well aware the metropolis had its seedy underbelly– a dark side that New York Times media columnist David Carr documents chillingly in his addiction memoir The Night of the Gun. In fact, I usually stayed with a bassist who doubled as the scene’s biggest drug dealer – let’s call him Sven. But even we pale, tattooed potheads went for hikes around Minneapolis’s many lakes and parks. Remember that scene in Purple Rain when Prince drives Apollonia out to a lake on his motorcycle? The call of nature is never far away in Minneapolis.

Perhaps all that clean air offers a stark contrast to the pockets of depravity and hard-luck characters. Two of the best records of the year so far come from Minneapolitans skilled at spinning tales of gritty realism out of a city not known for its grit. On the Atmosphere album When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, rapper Slug writes about a waitress trying to pay off student loans, a lost-soul rock star, and on “Dreamer,” a single mom struggling to make it from day to day. With a mantra chorus of “but she still dreams after she woke tight hold on that hope/ sometimes it can seem so cold do what you gotta do to cope,” it’s probably the best feminist anthem by a male rapper since Tupac’s “Dear Mama.” Spieled out over jazz piano riffs and spry, live backpacker hip-hop, these are unsentimental but sympathetic portraits worthy of Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer.

(Originally published on MOLI 8/21/8)

The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn explicitly toasts Strummer on “Constructive Summer”: “I think he might have been our only decent teacher.” Finn cut his teeth in Minneapolis but formed the Hold Steady in Brooklyn. Whereas he used to locate many of his songs in the back woods and alleys of the Twin Cities, on Stay Positive, he writes about all of America. On first listen “Constructive Summer,” with its backdrop of paper mills and parties, became my instant summer anthem – I was driving around the Upper Peninsula, after all, in a county where the red steel plant of a container company is the largest local employer. I interviewed Finn a couple years ago, and not surprisingly, he knew my old friend Sven. Sven could have been the model for many of Finn’s characters: the big-hearted drunk, the tragedy looking for a savior.

Minneapolis is in the heartland, so maybe it’s not so surprising that it’s produced two of the aughties’ Strummers – Woody Guthriesque champions of the downtrodden and unsung. Unlike the Minneapolis bands of the ‘80s, these bards aim for the anthems. Maybe grit is in the eye of the beholder.

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