A Soundtrack to Midwestern Roadside Oddities

I was born just early enough to remember life without YouTube, Spotify, and 30-second iTunes previews. In that era, if you wanted to listen to music without paying for it, you had to hear it on the radio or borrow a friend’s CD.

And if you did want to buy music, you had to ask yourself things like: “Do I really love Avril Lavigne enough to buy a whole new album without hearing it first based on the fact that I like the song ‘Sk8er Boi’?” It was a risk.

But it was also fun.

In that era, if you were feeling particularly adventurous and had saved up a few bucks, you could do things like pick a random CD out of a sale bin and it could become your new favorite, purely by chance.

Today, it’s so easy to just hit shuffle on the “R&B Jams” playlist on Spotify, listen to the potpourri of singles collected there and not give it a second thought. We don’t buy whole albums very often anymore; the way we consume music has changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time.

More on this in a future post, but for now, the point is this: it’s not often in this day and age to choose to listen to an album based on nothing more than the picture on its cover, but that’s exactly what I did a few days ago.

Namely, this one:

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I felt an immediate affinity for this album. I could explain why, but instead I’ll just share this picture of me, age 9:

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I have been to Bemidji! I met Mr. Bunyan and his Ox! I have worn red and black flannel shirts! And man do I love a good reference to popular Midwestern tourist attractions.

Another thing you should know about me is that at age 19, I planned a road trip with friends over spring break to visit every Paul Bunyan statue in Minnesota and Wisconsin (why, yes, there are several.)

Sadly, we had to put the kibosh on that plan when we realized that none of us actually had a car. (However, if any of you are reading this, the offer still stands. You know who you are.)

The American Midwest is charming and wonderful in many ways. Having a lot of Sierra Club Calendar–worthy landscapes isn’t one of them. Before any Minnesotans get irked about this, I’ll have you know that I’m the first one to defend the stark beauty of Lake Superior’s North Shore or the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters or the allure of a golden prairie or a wetland humming with life.

I am a champion of underappreciated landscapes and descendant from a long line of proud Minnesotans (well, one, and technically he’s an immigrant from Sweden, but still.) But let’s face it: there is no Yosemite in the Midwest.

The tallest point in Iowa (at a whopping 1,670 feet) is pictured here:

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Hawkeye Point, Iowa. Courtesy of Wikipedia/Brian Powell

Yes, it’s a corn field.

The Midwest has to get creative when it comes to attracting tourists.

A very short history lesson: in the wake of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and World War II, the U.S. in the mid 20th century was brushing itself off and getting back on its feet. Cars had become affordable to the masses a few decades earlier and with economic troubles receding, auto-tourism began to blossom. In fact, the Federal Government encouraged it, and small Midwestern towns were eager to attract visitors and the profits they promised.

But how do you attract passersby to a place like central Minnesota? Why, you make your own attractions. And that’s exactly what happened. Towns exaggerated and advertised their stereotypical “small-town appeal” and successfully created a vacation landscape, even in the absence of obvious natural attractions. They had charm. And what welcomes interstate travelers to visit your town better than an enormous, friendly lumberjack?

Paul Bunyan isn’t the only figure to grace the otherwise–dare I say it–bland geography of Minnesota and surrounding states, though.

Going to see South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore? How could North Dakota possibly compete with that?! With the world’s largest statue of a Holstein Cow, that’s how.

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Salem Sue. Photo courtesy of NorthDakotaTourism.com/Anzley Harmon

I’m not sure if people ever experienced the same kind of awe seeing larger-than-life farm animals as they did seeing majestic natural landscapes, or if the statues simply added to the kitschy appeal of Midwestern small towns. Whatever it was, it seemed to work. Paul Bunyan is one of the oldest statues, dating to the 30s, but they continued to be built well into the 1970s and ‘80s.

But that appeal started to wane. Perhaps in the age of 3D movies, free WiFi, and 6-second attention spans, our national interest in large, quirky statues faded. But the statues remain, sticking around and standing tall, as statues do best.

Even the descriptions of these “roadside oddities and offbeat attractions” seem a little halfhearted nowadays. For example, from roadsideamerica.com:

“Salem Sue, who’s already big, towers above New Salem on a rare North Dakota hill.”

“World’s Largest Buffalo: This mighty bull bison — built in 1959 out of sixty tons of concrete — keeps its unblinking eye on the Jamestown grain elevator.”

Or my personal favorite:

“Hilltop Viking Statue: A towering son of Odin looks out over North Dakota, probably wondering what he’s doing there.”

They are relics of a simpler time. They are kind of funny and a little sad. Their gaudy paint is fading in the sun. And now, they’re on the cover of a 2016 indie EP.

Think about it. What could be more hip than a bearded, late 1930s-era, vintage lumberjack on your album cover?! Throw in an Instagram filter and a minimalist white typeface and you’re set.

Which brings us back to the music. Bemidji is more than just a pretty cover. It’s filled with indie-rock that’s perfect, I would imagine, for a road trip through the great Midwest.

“Always/Never” starts off the record with a tight drumbeat and a crunchy electric guitar riff. Raucous but controlled indie-pop. With an edge.

And that edginess comes out in full force on “Get Mine.” The track tips a not-so-subtle hat to 2010s-era Black Keys, in every way from the heavy bass to the distorted, chunky electric guitar, and the modulating rock vocals from Ellsworth. Borrowing from the best, in my mind.

“Like Clockwork” slows with a heavily distorted guitar reverberating over a plunking piano and plodding beat.

In “The Surface” Ellsworth croons over simple, sweet piano, longingly. The song builds, but it still feels like a different energy than the other tracks’ more confident and heavier rock. At five and a half minutes, it’s not for the easily bored.

And the last track, “The Line” changes to a ¾ time ballad, waltzing along languidly…for another five minutes.

In sum, the tracks differ, but always feature Ellsworth’s distinct vocals paired with a strong distorted guitar riff that carries the tunes forward.

The group received acclaim for their previous album, Kid Tiger in 2014, and enough attention to push them to the edge of stardom. However, this album proves that the allure of mass popularity is less important than remaining faithful to their original sound. Or maybe they just didn’t know any better.

But there’s something to be said for sticking to your guns and not changing with the times. Eventually, like Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox, you might just come back in style.

 


 

Cover image by Maria Kjellstrand, mkjellstrand.squarespace.com, Copyright 2016

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