Adam James Sorensen,
(independent, 2012)

Through the window to my left, on this overcast day as damp and cold hover over the Upper Midwest, a big blizzard only hours away, I hear Adam James Sorensen singing, "It's right outside your window / You can feel it in the air." It's on "Suburban Rock & Roll," the opening cut of Midwest, which arrived with uncannily apposite timing in today's mail. Each of its 11 self-composed songs, modern folk music of an interestingly distinctive sort, evokes the gloom and the darkness of the moment. It's an album, too, about Chicago, where I once lived and where my children, now grown, still call home. All of this, I hardly need add, feels unsettlingly close for comfort.

Midwest operates within stark, acoustic textures, brilliantly arranged by the justly sought-after producer Evan Brubaker, who has a way with lyrical, doom-minded singer-songwriters of more than ordinary gifts. (I last encountered his work on Rachel Harrington's Celilo Falls, which I reviewed in this space on 9 April 2011.) This is veteran road musician/sideman Sorensen's first solo disc, cut on the occasion of his return home to his native Chicago after a long absence. Though nothing here has anything to do with the blues, it resounds with the mood of the late bluesman Johnny Shines's "Too Wet to Plow," one of the very finest songs anybody will ever write about the experience of staring through a window at the rain and contemplating darkness in all its dimensions.

More specifically, however, here and there Sorensen recalls the early folk-pop, gloriously bummed-out Paul Simon to mind, even in the coal-mining song "Stranger," where the mining is as metaphorical as it is literal. As Simon's were in those days, Sorensen's vocals are weary and resigned. The tempos never exceed mid-, and the band, which for all I know may consist of wraiths, never rocks out. Love dies, life disappoints, landscapes turn to winter. (There's even a "Winter Song.") The songs are all of a theme, each painting what a 19th-century songwriter imagined as "a picture from life's other side" where "someone has fell by the way / A life has gone out with the tide."

Though the emotional range is hardly expansive, it doesn't leave the impression that only one note is playing either. To the contrary, the story that stretches over the album's 48 minutes feels both whole and particular. When he's of a mind to write an old-fashioned ballad (as in story-song), Sorensen does it his own way -- I refer here to the harrowing "Northside" -- which is to waste no words as he lays the listener low.

On this afternoon as the storm, rolling in our direction from the West Coast, looms on the Midwest and Sorensen sings "The winter comes on wings of snow / It travels from the sea," Midwest speaks with chilly eloquence and eerie precision. It's a lovely record.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 April 2012

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