"I think this is the best stuff I've ever done," says David Baerwald of his new record, Here Comes the New Folk Underground. Considering that his track record includes the classic David + David album Boomtown, his crucial contributions to Sheryl Crow's multi-platinum Tuesday Night Music Club, and the recent Golden Globe nomination for Moulin Rouge’s show-stopping "Come What May," this is no idle threat.
As contemporary songwriters go, they don't come much better than David Baerwald, whose finely tuned ear for human folly and exquisite cruelty might make him rock'n roll's heir to Nathanael West. "He took murder out of the parlor room and gave it back to those who commit them for a reason," said Raymond Chandler of his fellow crime writer Dashiell Hammett. Substitute "murder" with "songs," and it's tempting to make a similar claim regarding the extraordinary qualities of David Baerwald and the New Folk Underground.
For the songs you find on Here Comes the New Folk Underground all exist for very good reasons. You can hear it in every single, passionate note, as Baerwald takes the listener on a ride that, despite several close calls and dark turns, ultimately strikes a defiant and life-affirming chord. And he takes us to this place without resorting to sentimentality or false bravado; the gritting of teeth you can hear is not fake.
Subsequently, one shouldn't be surprised to learn that what eventually became the New Folk Underground was born out of a funeral. The lead-off track "Why" starts here, at the services for the seven-year old son of Tuesday Night Music Club mastermind Bill Bottrell in Mendocino, CA in 1998. Returning home to Venice, CA, Baerwald rallied the troops that grew into the New Folk Underground, and spent the next six weeks trying to make sense of the senseless. The resulting blur of hard-fought catharsis was eventually burned onto two CDs distributed over the Internet as "A Fine Mess".
Which might have been the end of it if not one of these fine messes landed on the desks of Lost Highway who, to their credit, realized the power and value inherent in this music. Baerwald in turn used this opportunity to reconfigure what was once a howling mess into a finely tuned, razor-sharp and frequently funny narrative arc, a study in the art of remaining on your feet no matter what. Life doesn't just throw curveballs; a lot of times we're looking at a Roger Clemens brushback pitch. "You might take it hard," said Woody Guthrie, another itinerant folk singer, "but you take it." And other times you just gotta laugh.
"I love the smell of sawdust in the morning," Baerwald likes to say. Because for all the literary qualities and sheer intelligence of his songs, Baerwald counts the man who invented the steel guitar from leftover stock car parts as a high-ranking member of his personal pantheon of heroes. "There's just something about the disposability of a three-minute song that I like," he continues. "It's not meant for the Smithsonian or Library of Congress. But it can make right now a good deal better." Sentiments like this place David Baerwald firmly and squarely in the fine and honorable American tradition of unschooled innovators, misguided entrepreneurs, malcontent visionaries and fleet-footed bootleggers. Iconoclasts one and all, and with little else in common other than the ability to think on their feet, and leave a visible trail of burnt rubber.
So at a time when concepts like courage, heroism and the triumph of the human spirit is bandied about like so much fluttering confetti, "Here Comes the New Folk Underground" offers a gritty, brave blueprint of the real thing. And with it, David Baerwald confirms his rightful place in the long and crooked line of American artists who, when all is said and done, gave as well as they took, and along the way found new ways to make great music from car wrecks.