Midwest Side Stories
First impression: this guy can sing.
You wouldn’t think such a statement should warrant significant mention in a review of a new album, and maybe it doesn’t. Given my experiences the last (many) years listening to independent artists of the Americana roots variety, I feel it does because I hear a lot of emerging (and established) artists and damn it, some of them can’t.
They can mumble. They can emote. They can speak melodically with some rhythm, even. And many pull it off even with less of a voice than I might have.
Chicago Farmer, despite the moniker, can flippin’ sing. He has a style that reminds me of the country/folk pop singers of the early 70s—the R. Dean Taylors, John Denvers, and Ray Matericks of the day. Earnest. Bold. Honest.
Cody Diekhoff (nothing wrong with that name—wish he used it! For those who don’t know, I have a bit of an aversion to [the increasing number of] singers/duos who go under a name other than that which their mother gave ’em…fully realizing my mom never called me Fervor Coulee) has been releasing music for more than a decade, and by my count I have six albums to ‘catch up on’ having now been exposed to his straightforward, insightful, and darned groovy interpretation of modern life and vision. Not as cleverly obvious as John Prine, Diekhoff most reminds me of the former postman who happens to share similar small(er) town Illinois roots.
Diekhoff—okay, Chicago Farmer doesn’t set out to do anything fancy on Midwest Side Stories. He has insight into the experiences and internal dialogues of contemporary working class folks, and has the artistic ability to convert these into songs of substance and interest. “Skateboard Song” touches on a whole lot of stuff—youthful disenchantment, small-mindedness, finger-pointing, and police harassment, just to start—over a hard-beaten melody that would do both Weezer and Dan Bern proud.
“Two Sides of the Story” similarly looks at community, the push/pull pride/hate we have with our small town upbringings—we may not like ourselves, but you damn well better not put us down, especially if you live on the other side of town! “Umbrella” delves into the troubadour’s lot, “these songs and stories began unfolding like an umbrella in the rain” balancing melancholy and attempts toward local fame with a compulsion to connect with a single person while remaining true.
Chicago Farmer’s mid-western insights do not limit these songs: they appeal whether you are rural or urban, upstate or down, blue- or white- collar, Canadian or American. “Rocco N’ Susie” are our neighbours, the ones we don’t really know, but are more like us than we care to admit—a couple pay cheques away from foreclosure, a few months from desolation, several bad decisions from remand. The gradual journey from independence to dependence is identified in “Farms & Factories,” suspicion thrives in “Revolving Door,” and the night shift margins are explored on “9 pm to 5.”
Brian Henneman’s approach to songwriting comes to mind mid-set. Only late in the album deos Chicago Farmer rock as much as do The Bottle Rockets, but there are more commonalities in subject manner and tone than not. One can imagine Chicago Farmer finding inspiration through a cracked windshield, identifying vigour where others might encounter pathos. The full band of folks I’ve never heard of—Ernie Hendrickson, Darren Garvey, Matt Ulery, and many more—create a substantial background for Chicago Farmer, never infringing on his words while providing a weighty dynamic for these songs.
The set closes with an up tempo—almost bombastic—interpretation of John Hartford’s anthem to survival, “I’m Still Here.” It is an ideal song to close a set that has at its heart the theme of the daily grind: get up, work your ass off, enjoy a bit of the benefit of your labour, and repeat tomorrow, next month, and for the next forty years.
Chicago Farmer comes with a Todd Snider seal of approval. That’s cool. But you’ll like him just for being himself and delivering music that resonates no matter the circumstance.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I appreciate it, and hope you will support roots music in all its forms.