Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 24: Sweetheart (Dan Reeder, 2006)

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"He's good; you gotta give him that… He was good, but let it go… I love Bach, but come on you guys."

So says Dan Reeder, the Nuremberg-based, Louisiana-born and Southern California-bred painter, instrument builder, and musician, explaining the source frustration of his gently reactionary song, Bach is dead and gone, which appears on his 2006 release, Sweetheart. That German attitude that Bach is the beginning and end of all music. Get over it, the guy’s dead. The proof? Well, for one, he doesn’t answer email. Also, if you saw him, he’s just a pile of bones. Reeder’s not denying the man’s compositional greatness, singing, “While he was still living, he was one fast gun / I said let’s right some motets, he was already done.

Reeder seems most comfortable with short forms—vignettes. Of the 16 songs on this album, only three fall beyond the three-minute mark. The lead-off track, Waiting for my cappuccino—an incredibly funny peek into the mind of a soft-spoken man who is pissed off that his drink order has been flat forgotten—is only half a minute long. But so much drama—albeit the internal drama sparked by normalcy—is packed into those 34 seconds.

Reeder claims not to be a poet, and that may very well be true, but throughout Sweetheart, there are lines that are such beautifully eloquent and powerfully resonant readings of the everyday, that I just want to pluck them out and bottle ‘em. Perhaps he’s a poet and doesn’t even know he is one.

What’s so great about Reeder, though, is that despite this gift of lyrical vividness, he’s extremely comfortable downshifting into “hup getalong doggie / little doggie getalong”s in his “Cowboy Song” and child-like “hey batter batter batter hey batter hey”s in “I drink beer.” He’s also happy to take a tiny snippet of a lyric, such as “All my money is gone,” and just shuttling it back and forth through the warp c(h)ords, and producing in the end an unexpectedly colorful cloth. The variations appear at the seams, when he inserts a “2, 3, 4” or “Tell it to the landlord,” or “Dance to the music.” Is it campfire singalong music? Perhaps, but it’s maybe more situationally at home at home, performed in a sleeping child’s bedroom. Rolling at the level of a lullaby after-party.   

Reeder was aware that he could sing, but there was a problem: he’s got a very quiet voice. He loves vocal harmonies but if he sings with others, he can't be heard. And “then came the Pentium processor,” he explains, “and that made it possible for me to sing barbershop harmony with myself and country gospel harmony with myself." Problem solved.

He sings all the parts, plays all the instruments—that, oh yeah, he makes—and records and mixes the records himself. Why does he prefer to work alone? For one, musicians are hard to deal with. They come with “thick air,” as Reeder puts it, translating from the German equivalent. “Bands are terrible.”

Among the plentiful honest-to-goodness sweetness that warm’s this record’s heart, you hear, sprinkled throughout, Reeder’s completely matter-of-fact potty-mouth. (Note the classic “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” warning invading the cover art, which, incidentally, features a full-headed bier stein linoleum cut created by his then nine-year-old daughter.) While he does name-check certain parts of the female anatomy written on a men’s room wall, a certain type of heaven that may not be ample enough to go around, and a certain onanistic activity Cowboys may or may not partake in—all of which, while I personally take no issue with, I am, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, circumlocuting at this present time in order to get this text on the radio—Reeder’s tender delivery of these so-called “explicit” words betray no wink or expletive-deleted-eating-grin. If “explicitness” be the soul of songwriting, write on, I say.

The album ends with a cover of Procol Harum’s 1967 debut single, “A whiter shade of pale,” seemingly tailor-made for Reeder. "It's maybe my favorite song of all time," he says. “I just wanted to see if I could do it.” He plays the introductory and transitional melody vulnerably and heartbreakingly on his harmonica. It’s not a flawless take, but all the better. He defended inexactitude when talking about the second tune on the album, an instrumental called “Just a tune,” saying, “Playing it better woulda made it worse.”

OK, OK, but how are we, the listener, to reconcile the fact that the introductory melody and harmonic progression of “A whiter shade of pale” is lifted directly from the grave of that old dead-and-gone pile o’ bones, J. S. Bach? “OK, you win,” Reeder admits. “See? I'm a jackass.” 

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.