ARLO McKINLEY – Die Midwestern (Oh Boy Records)

Die MidwesternArlo McKinley’s Die Midwestern is a folk-rock-country album whose songs carve a lifetime of tough conversations into granite tombstones found in any cemetery optimistically named Evergreen. Although there are no characters created, these tunes sing with a Walt Whitman ‘Song Of Myself’ universality that confesses sad truths, with Spoon River Anthology clarity.

And my friend, Kilda Defnut, says, “Arlo’s voice sounds like, metaphorically speaking, a brand-new way to toss a horseshoe”.

That’s the deal here: This is heartbeat music that has flowed in the undertow of any big muddy Americana river. But, despite the riverboat odds, Arlo’s voice, somehow, takes the table with a very human poker hand that laughs at life with its two paired aces and eights. It simply tosses an American folk-rock horseshoe in an unwonted manner.

To mention (the great) Walt Whitman again, he wrote, “If you want me again look under your boot soles”.

Sure, these are “boot sole” tunes. ‘We Were Alright’ begins with a quiet guitar. But then Arlo’s vocal sounds like a sinner who has finally confessed, only to find a drunken priest who can only mumble an inebriated contrition, without much a mention of the penance or salvation that might validate some sort of eternal parking stub. Thick pathos drips through the song. Ditto for the violin-piano pumped ‘Die Midwestern.’ And, quite frankly, there’s an echo of the greatness of The Band’s Levon Helm. Then, ‘She’s Always Around’ walks the very same ‘Streets of Baltimore’ as once trod (and sung) by Gram Parsons.

‘Bag of Pills is a “Tale In Hard Time”. And yes, that’s a Richard Thompson song title from Fairport’s What We Did On Our Holidays. The reference is apt because ‘Pills’ mines the same despairing depths of RT’s ‘Withered And Died’ or ‘Devonside’. This is a song of immense desolation, as its hero sells pills to buy booze for (presumably) a woman friend; and by the way, Jesus is “too busy” to listen and care. The primitive musical framework is a blues death march that could serve the funeral procession for John Prine’s ‘Sam Stone’. Again, the reference is equally apt because John, when presented with the song by his son Jody (according to AM’s Website) simply said in his “pretty good, not bad, can’t complain” voice, “That’s good song”. And then Arlo was signed to his Oh Boy Record label.

Now, while not attempting to create a buzz for a Go-Fund-Me-Page in order to cover my shrink bills, I do confess to having a weird (and quite vivid) re-occurring dream of being stuck in elevator, with only a DOWN button to push as a destination option. Well, ‘The Hurtin’s Done’ could be the soundtrack to that scenario. And the guy in this song, like all the characters in Dante’s Inferno, gets to tell the truth, because, well, in the deep down, there’s nothing more to lose. And, just so you know in that re-occurring dream, I always push the solitary button. That said, this tune has a deep pulse of an addictive melody. And it also enters bleak (already-mentioned) Richard Thompson territory, where there is, sadly, “nothing at the end of the rainbow”.

Ironically, ‘Suicidal Saturday Night’ lifts the tempo like a catchy prayer, with organ and fiddle injecting joyous sawdust. And, amid the “criminals on the run” confession, the speaker simply wants to “get back home”. This song gets rich in a Bruce Springsteen logos. And, quite honestly, it echoes the sound of The Band, circa Stage Fright. That’s saying a lot.

In total contrast, ‘Once Again’, is acoustic honesty that touches a deep sincerity– without any ego-protecting armor. The song covers tough space with a depleted (and love tattooed) heartbeat. The same is true for the more dramatic ‘Whatever You Want’. This song’s singer begs love and forgiveness from a continuous world of (still) mumbled and inebriated contrition.

Big guitars announce ‘Gone For Good’, and it rocks with a swirling organ, while the electric guitars catch the slow-burn combustion of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Again, that’s great praise.

The final tune, ‘Walking Shoes’, pulses a strong farewell heartbeat, and with violin in tow, exits with a (sort of) slow baptismal zydeco vibe. The song descends into yet another beautiful melodic sunset.

Die Midwestern is a tough and lovely record. Arlo McKinley pushes that basement button and dives into deep lyrical waters; but thankfully, he finds some slice of confessed salvation and a bit of buoyant hope—a hope that floats on the warm, tough, and sometimes intense melodies that are carved, like gravestone conversations, into the grooves of this very human and very beautiful record.

Bill Golembeski

Artist’s website:

‘Walking Shoes’ – official video:

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