Mike Strasser,
Alienation Cafe
(independent, 2004)

Throughout Alienation Cafe, singer-songwriter Mike Strasser's voice seems so sad and somber. It's not a bad kind of sad, but it has an underlying sense of longing, with a touch of inherent experience (more of a "been there, done that"). His voice almost seems out of time, as if it were lifted from the early 20th-century Carter family recordings. And to top it off, he combines his somber vocals with pensive lyrics to really push your mind, your ears and your eyes towards the surrounding social-political world.

On some songs, Strasser is all over the place in his commentary. For instance, the narrative of the title song "Alienation Cafe" has a dual purpose of being entertaining anecdotes and biting social commentary. Yet some songs have a somewhat sharper focus, such as "Corporate State of America" as it holds a bleak mirror up to the government, discussing the true motivation of greed and special interest. The lyrics and his solemn vocal style act in opposition to the song's anthem-esque structure, enforcing the disparity between the price of freedom and corporate control of a democracy.

Strasser focuses on a very particular subject, sexual abuse and its lifelong effect, in the powerful "Trail of Broken Hearts." This song's pacing and lyrics will just about break anyone's heart. This stark yet subtle tale explores how one woman's childhood abuse still haunts her life, causing her to perpetuate a cycle of pain:

Now she leaves a trail of broken hearts, and shattered lives in her wake
Don't get me wrong, she's a good woman at heart
Leaving a trail of broken hearts, and shattered lives in her wake
A good woman, a shattered little girl.

Strasser's vocals are the key to this song's success. He's a great storyteller, but in this song you can feel the tragic elements in his voice. You sense he doesn't enjoy telling/singing the story, yet you understand why he must pass it on to others. "Trail of Broken Hearts" is a difficult yet excellent emotionally packed song.

Strasser supposedly lightens up a bit on a few songs, but even the more light-hearted songs have some depth. "My America," despite Strasser using a quasi-speaking style of singing, seems too light-hearted. Pay attention to the lyrics in comparison to the pacing. If he's not being a bit tongue-in-cheek, then he's got me fooled.

"Love is the Sweetest Thing" sounds like it would be a saccharine sappy song; it's quite the opposite. Strasser's voice makes it seem serious while the lyrics give it that slightly sweet flavor. There's also an interesting background harmony vocal that sets this piece apart from a typical long song.

From corporate corruption infesting the ideals of democracy to an honest exploration of the cyclical nature of abuse, nothing is out of bounds (musically or mentally) for Mike Strasser's Alienation Cafe. This is definitely an album for those seeking thought-provoking music in conjunction with a singular style.

- Rambles
written by C. Nathan Coyle
published 9 July 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.