The Kong Show
Deliver Us from People
Magic Marker Records
I have a new neighbor who plays drums all afternoon. Actually, he doesn't so much "play" them as hit them in succession. Ba-dum-dum-thump. Thump-dum-tick-tick-tick. If he's in search of a beat, he never finds it.
For months I've wondered why this junior high kid was home in the middle of a Tuesday, practicing to become a disappointed high school drum major. Then yesterday, as spring was springing, I met the drumming dude for the first time. Turns out that he's a white-haired, fiftysomething Wisconsin transplant who wears ring-around-the-collar polos under his sweatshirts and makes doughnut "o's" with his mouth. Suddenly, I loved the beat-less thumps emanating from next door like I love the little unwitting bird building a precarious home for her babies in the open installation hole on the side of my house.
The songs on Walker Kong's Deliver Us from People produce similar love-at-second-sight feelings, although they're so cleverly written and layered with happiness, innocence, and dancing guitar plucks that it's easy to fully embrace them the first time out. But it's when you dig deeper that you see and hear the songs for what they truly are: little allegories on the human condition—or more aptly, the animal condition—with the humble earnestness of a drummer searching for his own beat in sporadic thumps and kerplunks.
Songwriter-guitarist Jeremy Ackerman (also a visual artist) has been writing honeyed, orchestral, geek-rock tunes with various incarnations of Walker Kong since 1998 (the current lineup includes wife Alex Ackerman, Emily Cahill, Tony Mogelson, Peter Robelia, Kevin Riach, and a handful of friends adding violin, cello, organ, and background vocals). But the new album is larger and fuller and sweeter than past records, and more reflective of the band's live shows.
Lyrically, Ackerman has a whole host of goodies and furry animals up his sleeve. Remember when you weren't jaded enough to believe buttery dandelions could actually be weeds? These songs recall that feeling; wholesome at first blush, they're actually little abstract meditations on a somber theme: how animals are used for human function.
"I'd been reading a lot about animals being used for human purposes," Ackerman says over the phone from his home in Ashland, Wisconsin, where he teaches art to K-12 students. "About how they were taken out of their habitat, how people were training them, caging them, and giving them new meaning."
On "Lonesome Eyes," Ackerman sings in Robyn Hitchcockian vocals over jangly guitars, gleeful keys, gigantic blissful beats, and sweet female background vocals, "Your mother, she's a suitcase/Your brother's had a similar fate/Would you believe they carry the makeup of a movie star?"
When melancholy lyrics meet rousing musicality, the juxtaposition can come off as ironic or cheeky, but Ackerman is too dang clever for that. Instead, the songs are more like little packages of human obsessions.
"Writing songs is sort of like purging yourself," Ackerman says. "You really explore it, then you're done." And for Ackerman, a lifetime music junkie, songs are mini-explorations that one returns to again and again, like dog-eared pages in a favorite book. "All the records I love, from Belle and Sebastian to Solomon Burke to the Velvet Underground, they resonate with a certain page in my life," he says.
"When I go back to them, that moment is re-explored in my adult life. For some dudes, their dog ear is Ratt's Out of the Cellar, you know?" He laughs, then pauses. "And, well, maybe it's one of mine, too." And in a series of second glances, knowing that makes his songs that much sweeter.
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