By Reed Fischer
By Anna Gulbrandsen
By Jeff Gage
By Stacy Schwartz
By Natalie Gallagher
By Erik Thompson
By Jeff Gage
By Loren Green
Because Mark Thomas Stockert's new album is called Chatelaine Saloon; because it's bound in suede and decorated with Old West iconography; because Stockert dresses in loose-fitting flannel, dusty jeans, and big, fat boots; because every cigarettes-and-whiskey song he sings feels as windswept and abandoned as the Iron Range itself; because of all of these things, I'm not a bit surprised when the first thing out of the singer-songwriter's mouth is "I'm usually not even alive at 10:00 in the morning, but I'm heading up north today with some buddies to hang out and drink beer."
No kidding, I think.
"No problem," I say, sitting down for breakfast at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. "When are you leaving?"
"I don't know," he says. "Later. I'm not the type to hurry up and have fun."
Stockert's a slow-lane kind of a guy--that much can be gleaned from one listen to Chatelaine Saloon, the fourth release from fellow Americanaphile Martin Devaney's Eclectone label. These eleven songs canter along at a pace that could have been set by the sleepy swishing of a horse's tail: Even the relatively upbeat "Chicky Boom" takes its sweet time between the chicks and the booms. And like their singer, these tunes aren't in any hurry to have a good time, either: Stockert's hushed vocals float up lazily and land, alongside trembling guitars and quivering organs, just beneath the note and behind the beat, as if weighed down by the very anguish that drips from lines like "I won't love you if you don't want me to" and "Shut up your cryin', cowboys are always alone." They're cowboy songs, and they speak to the mysteries of the lonely plains--metaphorically, of course, since the album largely takes place in the concrete landscapes of Minneapolis. Inside this good ol' boy's head, the moonshine's drunk by the bottle, the maidens are lost to the train tracks, and all along the dusty streets the sorrowful tumbleweeds blow.
"It's obviously a very dark record," Stockert explains after ordering a ham and egg sandwich. "It's about what all rock songs are about: love, death, identity, and escape."
Stockert speaks the way he sings: slowly, carefully, and with surprising depth. Whenever he steps to the microphone with would-be clichés like "I'm down on my knees/I'm beggin', I'm prayin'," his voice makes the words sound like a soul-baring exercise. "Recording an album is scary," Stockert tells me. "You're really naked when you do it."
One of the reasons he's able to get so naked--again, metaphorically, I think--is the cozy, nonthreatening environs of Underwood. Not so much a studio as a two-story recording womb, Underwood begs you to come in and let it all out. The main floor is decked out with colored drapes, soft lighting, thick rugs, and candles. One dark bedroom acts as the vocal room. There's an old upright piano that looks like it came from Chatelaine Saloon itself, and the shelves are adorned with art, books, and auxiliary percussion instruments, vital to any productive jam session. Downstairs is the basement that every aspiring gear hound dreams of: dozens of guitars on the walls, a drum set stacked in the corner, keyboards on top of keyboards, and a vintage soundboard that has recorded Janet Jackson and Sting. Incense burns on the table; the lights are low and the pipes are bare. The hyper-paced, high-tech world might be buzzing outside, but down here it's always 1975. "There ain't a computer in the whole place," Stockert says.
Stockert's buddies spent a full year hanging out at Underwood trying to finish Chatelaine Saloon--a process that consisted mainly of drinking, jamming, and "seeing what happens." What happened might be the sparsest record ever to credit 14 musicians (Stockert calls them the House of Strange Sounds Players) in its liner notes. It's a who's-who list of local alt-country players, culling talent from Big Ditch Road, Bellwether, and the Honeydogs, all stretching their roots rock know-how over an ambience that's rarely applied to this kind of music. Each song runs into the next; they're joined like paper dolls by eerie wailings of distant guitars, and the result is a marriage of heavy, dissonant drone and classically familiar chord changes similar to an Angelo Badalamenti score. It resonates a spooky sadness.
"Someone told me it was Hank Williams meets Pink Floyd," Stockert says, and I agree, although Stockert's whispery baritone feels closer to Leonard Cohen's. Not that stretching for artistic reference points is even worth doing: Something as remotely classifiable as "roots" can mean any 1-4-5 played on an acoustic guitar, or just an echo of an echo of a dead guy clapping his hands. So we decide not to dwell on reference points. Our breakfast is here, and we've got places to be. Eventually. For now, we shut up and enjoy the eggs, the ham, and, like a couple of urban cowboys, the quiet.