I knew that Cape Disappointment, the new LP from Aaron Semer, was in my review pile for at least a few weeks. I was surprised when I retrieved it from said pile only to find that the cover was tweaked with old-fashioned ring wear, something only my oldest LPs sport. I started looking on the internet for a suitable image, and that’s when I got the joke. It’s part of the design.
That almost encapsulates singer-songwriter Aaron Semer’s approach on this, his latest album. His music, firmly entrenched on the folky side of americana, is sly and witty and smart. While reviewing The Phoenix Project‘s latest EP yesterday, I was reminded of the rise of americana more than a decade ago, and how everyone had to put out their version of Raising Sand. As someone who spent most of his life avoiding mainstream country music, I was amazed that I cottoned to this stuff so quickly. Where did I draw the line between the stuff I hated and this stuff, which I loved? As it turns out, it’s two things: being smart and being honest.
Cape Disappointment reminds me of all those folk-country-bluegrass hybrids I discovered at the time, people like Robt Sarazin Blake and Alene Diane and Ben Kweller. Aaron Semer is a storyteller, first and foremost, and he has a lot to say about The Way Things Are and Why Does That Have to Be. On one of the most strikingly original songs, “Bones for the Catacombs,” he tells the story of a man during the reign of Louis XVI who takes on an important job: “The cemetery walls are all overgrown, we gotta move these bones to the catacombs.” It’s a metaphor for humans all winding up as worm food in the end, but it’s told with wit and style and lots of energy.
Cape Disappointment is named for the spot where the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean meet, where the Lewis and Clark expedition was stymied by strong currents. Aaron Semer sets these songs along those perimeters and he gives them explicit titles such as “A God That’s All Ours,” “I Hope My Johnny Comes Rolling Home” and “(Little Black Square on My) Profile Pic.” By the end of the album you realize that this isn’t Americana, a term that’s become nebulous, but good old-fashioned protest music. It’s a new generation singing these songs, however, a generation a little wiser, a little more jaded, and far more witty.