The Internet Has a Problem but It’s Not with Mary
For all the bullshit we put up with as a result of the original Internet ethos having been crushed by our commercial culture – most notably the myriad ways that nation-like leviathans Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon have done insult to democracy and civility – you’d think that we’d at least have at our fingertips any song ever recorded.
It’s a travesty that 1980’s mod / power-pop band The Dig was nowhere to be found* till early 2020 when a fan posted to YouTube the band’s complete studio recordings (1985-86) from their Minneapolis-based Susstones label. (* I mean immediate digital purchase. Fortunately, there is an active market for The Dig’s vinyl on Discogs.)
So it’s all the sweeter that fans of the band’s driving force, Ed Ackerson, and his subsequent projects – Sideways, The 27 Various, Polara and BNLX – include musicians from bands like Soul Asylum, The Dandy Warhols, The Jayhawks and 26 others (including my band, The Lilacs) — all of whom went into studios around the globe to record their favorite Ed songs.
Artist: Various Artists
Album: Closer To Heaven: A Tribute To Ed Ackerson
Label: Susstones Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Closer to Heaven: A Tribute to Ed Ackerson was released in October, a year after the influential musician’s untimely passing in 2019 from pancreatic cancer, and stands as one of the brightest lights in a very dark year. Clocking in at an impressive one hour and 54 minutes, these 30 songs have more hooks than the National Anglers Association.
Trouser Press described Ed Ackerson as “an assured and able multi-faceted rocker with a specialty in foot-pedal power…a talented songwriter (as opposed to a gifted noisemaker)”. I’d be loath to argue with any Ira Robbins take, but this one is particularly apt.
As a teenager in mod and punk bands in the 80s, I was a fan of The Dig, and Problem with Mary remains one of my favorite songs from that era. It also had a special meaning for me at the time, courtesy of an unrequited love named Mary.
From its build-ups and stops, to the gravelly passion of its lead vocal and “la la la” backings, judicious use of tambourine, the intertwined mod guitars and powerful snare-fill-to-crash-cymbal accents — “The Problem with Mary” has it all and ranks with the best lo-fi gems America’s garages have ever produced.
The Lilacs poured our admiration for Ed’s songwriting, musicianship and scene building into a faithful cover, which features a stellar vocal performance by Ken Kurson, backing vox and guitar layering (dig that feedback!) by David “Kingfish” Levinsky and melodic fretwork from Kevin Sanders on those signature bass lines. I’ve never had more fun recording a drum track, and I tried to do some justice to the inspired tour de force drumming of Mike Reiter, whose photographs of The Clash and Ramones can sometimes be spotted here on Rock and Roll Globe.
While I have to admit to gross negligence in not keeping up with Ackerson’s post-Dig career, the upside has been my joy in discovering Ed’s other projects, as well as some excellent lesser-known bands who contributed to this record.
The title track, “Closer to Heaven,” was Polara’s 2009 final release. The original was “excavated from its digital tomb” and released as a digital single in conjunction with the tribute album. Here it is “interpreted in amazing fashion by The Ocean Blue, featuring former Polara drummer Peter Anderson, with guest lead vocalist Ebbot Lundberg from one of Ed’s favorite bands, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives.”
Driven by a pulsating beat and “ah ah ha!” backups, Ed sings (perhaps in reference to something he said in a 2011 interview: “I can’t write hits; I only write what I write”), “Heard you’re changing the station for reasons obscure to me…” He goes on to offer sage advice:
The solutions were always in your head, hiding there.
Get out of the sun.
Hang onto the sound that takes you closer to heaven; that’ll take you closer to heaven.
Remember this time.
The theme of rock music as salve for dealing with problematic girls continues with “Wired Weird”, for which Motion City Soundtrack contributes a driving cover that takes the energy up a few notches (including via some killer drum fills in the final choruses). Here again Ed has the right idea:
That chick’s so weird, what’s her deal? I don’t know. I don’t know; don’t wanna know. Why she always talked to me. I don’t know. I don’t know; don’t wanna know.
Fellow Twin Cities band, The Jayhawks, cover “Got Your Message”, which is a perfect choice, as they bring the same soulful, country-rock vocals, mix of male and female voices plus keyboards as on their own songs, like the wonderful “Blue”. “Got Your Message” is a lamentful admonition to someone living “all of your lifetime, drifting on past”.
I got your message, and I wanted to say: if you don’t conjure them, those ghosts will go away…
I got a question I’ve been meaning to ask: when did your future become a shrine to your past?
While the original (the opening track on Ackerson’s 2007 eponymous solo album) has a tasteful guitar lead, The Jayhawks up the ante with a modified version featuring twin guitars and a sound worthy of Boston.
Kraig Jarret Johnson is another artist this tribute album introduced me to. The indie punk band he formed as a teenager with his brothers in Minneapolis in the 1980s had early records on SST, including one produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and another by legendary Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart.
Johnson offers up a lively version of Light the Fuse and Run, a Dandy Warhols-esque rocker from Polara’s major label debut in 1997, C’est La Vie.
Reviewing that album, Rolling Stone credited Ackerson with being “the kingpin of a resurgent Minneapolis music scene,” and Ed gives a poignant run down of the surreal nature of those Interscope years in the interview linked above.
Stare hard enough at the picture and you’ll get it. You’ve been had; I didn’t wanna say it.
I didn’t wanna say it could work out this way. I light the fuse and run.
Polara drummer Anderson joins this track as well, bringing the heaviosity with his ample kick drum, not to mention a floor-tom ride offsetting some sweet guitar licks in the break leading up to the guitar lead.
Naturally, the Dandy Warhols also weigh in, with a fuzzy, dirge-like cover of “A Brighter Day” from Polara’s 1998 release, Formless/Functional.
There are too many good songs and interesting performances to cover in a single article, but I’d be remiss not to mention “Like the Poison,” a song from The 27 Various’ 1990 LP Approximately.
Tanya Donelly & Melissa Gibbs contribute an inspired version that opens with guitar and cymbal crashes reminiscent of The Who on Tommy, picks up the tempo a bit from the original and continues with Keith Moon-inspired drumming that complements the lovely vocals asking yet another introspective question:
Is it really asking too much for one peaceful hour each day, to close my eyes and get myself out of this disarray?
A blessed end to 2020 would be to close our eyes for an hour and 54 minutes each day and soak in the sounds and wisdom of Closer to Heaven: A Tribute to Ed Ackerson.
Ed not only hung onto the sound, he brought us closer to heaven. I’ll take his hit songs any day.
VIDEO: Ed Ackerson “Wired Weird”