Eddie Berrigan is a New York poet and musician who performs under the name of I Feel Tractor, and sometimes with a group called So L’il. His songs are playful retakes of traditional folk and country genres – their subtle, funny lyrics and far-flung imagery create unusual landscapes of both physical and emotional territory. The author of the poetry collection Disarming Matter (1999, Owl Press) and several chapbooks, Eddie-as poet is also featured in a recently released anthology of love poems, Isn’t It Romantic? 100 Love Poems by Younger Poets, which includes work by David Berman and Jeff Tweedy. (The book comes with a CD with songs by Richard Buckner, Vic Chestnutt, Jason Molina and the Silver Jews – sadly, nothing by Eddie or Tweedy.) Musically, I Feel Tractor released a self-titled 7-inch last year (Loudmouth Collective) and is currently working on a full-length recording. Glorious Noise caught up with Eddie for a conversation about songwriting, poetry, day jobs and the current music scene.
Hayden at the Knitting Factory
September 13, 2004, New York
“The Internet is dead. It’s over,” a gray-haired writer for New York’s Daily News informed me as we sat on the Knitting Factory floor waiting for Hayden to start playing. “It was great for five years, but then it imploded. Now it’s just spoiled 23-year-olds talking to each other.”
I disagreed. “I think there’s still some good writing on the web. Blogs are an interesting world.”
Our umbrellas were consfiscated at the gate (they could be used as weapons, I was told), but that was the only down note in the entire day and night of Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival on Randall’s Island. My friend Kathy and I got there at 1 pm, having bagged an overly ambitious plan to be there for the beginning at 11:00 am (who can rock at 11:00? Apparently James Gandolfini, and missing him was a drag, but we caught a few other Sopranos who were hanging onstage, like Big Pussy Bompansero and Paulie Walnuts, along with some other of Little Steven’s pals like, oh, Bruce Springsteen, who sauntered on now and then to introduce a band). It was a day of dazzling but casual star power; everyone was friendly; there was a minimum of insider/outsider vibe, and the unpretentious, inclusive spirit of the show evoked legendary 60s rock events like Woodstock (the love vibe) and Altamont (the confiscated umbrellas, the revved-up aggression in the music) and made peace with that past by connecting it to the present.
Hal Willner’s Neil Young Project in Prospect Park
Celebrate Brooklyn, New York, June 26, 2004
The Neil Young Tribute in Prospect Park last Saturday night was fittingly immense. Neil’s career is like this behemoth by now, and listening to musicians cover his songs is both a revelation w/r/t/ how sprawling and eclectic his oeuvre has become, and a trip down about twelve different memory lanes, depending on the amount of gray in your hair. Only true Neil-o-philes could have known every song, so long stretches of time were spent wondering when Neil had penned this tune, in what mood, and who was up there singing it.
King of France, a New York rock trio, is the polar opposite of a shoe-gazing trance band – their music is so engaged and emotional that at first you may feel yourself pulling back, the way you would from a drunken uncle at a family reunion. But all it takes is a few listens and King of France’s intelligent magic takes over. You capitulate to the band’s playful/majestic melodies, the finely detailed performances of each player and the music’s tightly controlled explosiveness. Unlike your uncle, this three-piece knows exactly what it’s doing at all times.
Preston School of Industry at the Mercury Lounge
New York City, March 29, 2004
There’s good news and bad news about the Preston School of Industry. First, it’s nice to report that ex-Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg has improved as a singer since “Date w/ IKEA” (off 1997’s Brighten the Corners). The muddy indistinctness of his voice has been replaced with something warmer and bolder, brightening his feel-good California rock with a rich emotionality reminiscent of Gene Pitney. Kannberg also has good rock-singer chops – he can scream just as well as his former bandmate, the now-Jicks-leading Stephen Malkmus, and in performance at the Mercury Lounge on March 29, he appeared
energized and committed in his new role as frontman of his own band.
The first thing you hear is a deep analog groove – that high, murky hiss that transports you back in time, like the snap and flicker of a Super 8mm film. Then a little old guitar, sounding like the strings haven’t been changed in years, starts up a half-plucked, half-strummed rhythm. It’s incredibly catchy – the guitar and recording technology may be bone-simple, but this guy can play. Then Charley Patton starts singing. It’s a rough, straightforward voice that darts in and out of the rock-solid rhythm he’s laying down. “My jelly, my roll, please mama don’t you let it fall.” The song dances, skips, jumps around in perfect rhythm in the hands of this one guy, who you can bet is doing the take cold. It’s rough and frisky and fun, and one big reason I like it is that Jack White of the White Stripes really likes Charley Patton. And I’m, like, totally into the White Stripes.
One of the interview subjects of the book Peops (Soft Skull Press, 2003) jokes that in her new career, she hopes to put the ‘punk’ back in acupuncture. The spirit of punk looms large over this contemporary oral history of nonconformists who’ve avoided mainstream respectability through DIY independence and housing squats, and generally refused to exchange spontaneity for a solid income. There’s even an occasional hope that the world might see the light and get on board with these attitudes, too. But the values of the mainstream regularly intrude – the above comment is made in reference to the tuition price for an acupuncture course: $45,000.
I’m sure all aging rock fans have their own feelings about their relationship to the art form (which was frickin invented in some of our lifetimes). There’s something undeniably magical, forceful, and yeah, rebellious, about that moment when you snap on your amp and your guitar becomes an instrument of assertive, potentially deafening noise. It’s powerful. It does seem to kick out the jams, obliterate any stuffiness, shove propriety and politesse down authority figures’ throats.
Joe Mannix’s “White Flag” starts out with an amazing one-two punch. The first song, “Silver Girl,” has such soaring beauty that it’s hard to stop listening to it and move on to the rest of the record. But you should, since #2, “Bellrose Hill,” is strummy toe-tapper with an irresistible refrain. This is a beautifully produced (by Glenn Marshall, a student of Daniel Lanois) album that showcases Mannix’s tuneful voice and wistful, melancholic songs. Mannix has a light, almost familiar voice, but he throws it all over the melodic range in such a fearless, all-out way that you’re smitten. “Do you still live in that big open room / do you still keep those secrets from the world?” he asks an old acquaintance on “Silver Girl.” “Do you still cry yourself to sleep at night / do you still love the rain, silver girl?” This heartbreaking stanza stands out for its melodic beauty as well as its creation, with a few lyrical strokes, of a vivid character – something Lucinda Williams used to do brilliantly, but seems to have moved away from.
“Light After the Darkness” is spare and eloquent. The acoustic guitar sounds dry and crunchy, with Mannix’s voice, full and emotional, backed by a quiet piano. “Bamboo” hits some of the same notes and emotional territory as “Silver Girl,” but a few lyrical slack spots make the song less of a knockout. Similarly, “Higher Intervention” seems to be too smooth for its own subject matter – “I’m running out of desperate things to do” is a great line, but the song’s charging, rocky feel and easy lyrics (“Lady Luck has passed me by”) keep the emotion from cresting.
Mannix’s singing has been compared to Neil Finn’s and Michael Penn’s, but Mark Eitzel should be mentioned too – the two singers both use an effective, honest wail. Mannix’s sound is more squarely in the folk-rock tradition than Eitzel’s – a website describes him as “Phil Ochs meets PF Sloan with The Band.” His album has its share of rockers, like the title track, “White Flag,” showing characteristic melodic flair. “Last Gang in Town” has a Celtic drone behind its catchy chorus. The collection as a whole is an unabashedly pretty and well-recorded throwback to the folk-pop tradition of the 1970s.