I like EPs. They're always nice quick listens - really good for trying to get a feel for an artist. But the obvious complaint that EPs get is that they are often showcases for one or two really good songs, then a couple tracks of filler, just enough to get a proper release. There are obvious exceptions to the rule but there isn't an artist who releases those exceptions at the rate of Dan Bern. His EPs are mini highlight reels, with song after song after high quality song. Minus one or two minor missteps that we'll discuss here, picking up any of Bern's EPs is sure to reward you with a deep, rich listening experience, inside of a nice compact listening time. For all your feeling needs, on the go!
Dog Boy Van (1997)
Jerusalem is on here. We glossed over it in part 1, but it looms so large in the world of Dan Bern, its inclusion on Dog Boy Van (Released prior to Dan Bern) warrants a little more discussion. It's a beautiful, funny song. It's like the Big Lebowski of songs, rewarding you with something new every time you take it in. I'm sure it's an amazing feeling to have a song that touches so many people, but, Dan Bern fans, I think we should make a pact to stop yelling out requests for it at live shows. In a catalogue of hundreds of songs anyone would be proud to call their own, let us collectively stop asking for the one that the man has undoubtedly played at least two thousand times. *Ahem*
"Hannibal," my second favourite set of Bern lyrics (First belongs to "Fly Away" from Fleeting Days), is thoughtful and vicious. Bern once told me that it's all in the tuning. Some of it might be there in the tuning, but he's hitting the guitar with a very specific kind of righteous violence. I'm desperate to put a sample of the lyrics here but I can't pick a part, so just check the whole thing out. I've heard both "Kurt" and "Live Another Day" countless times and I still feel that lump in my throat every time I hear them. "Oklahoma" is like the great sad movie that you can only watch once or twice. It's the last song and the easiest one to not hear when I put the album on. It's a song of tremendous feeling and power and I skip it every time.
World Cup (2002)
One of the quietest collections in the entire discography, World Cup is a lovely set of more contemplative little tunes. As these songs accompany a written tour diary, written during the same time period and affected by the same life states, the five songs here all reside in the same sonic territory and can bleed together a bit. That's not to say the songs are weak. World Cup has been a staple on my music player every time I've left the country to go adventuring.
"Suicide Bomb" is a heartbreaking song about giving up and feeling paralyzed in the face of unrelenting horror. Unfortunately it hasn't become any less poignant after nearly 14 years. But "All Right Kind of a Girl" is also on here and that makes it okay. This song reminds me of how holding hands felt when I was 9 and it's amazing. I'm also amazed that all girls have breasts, Dan.
The Swastika EP (2002)
THIS IS THE BEST EP IN THE HISTORY OF RECORDED MUSIC. I don't know what else to say, really. The impact that the 25 minutes of music on this disc cannot be overstated. I'm a child of the 80s and the Sept.11 attacks is the closest I've been to an attack. It remains the most galvanizing global event that I share with people my age. I watched from the other side of the border, at home in Canada, and I watched as our closest neighbour and a country I really do love dearly (Sssssh! Don't tell my judgey countrymen) go through the pains of tragedy. I remember the censorship, the dramatic shift in conservatism. (That my country just escaped. GOODBYE MR. HARPER!) I also remember picking up this folk EP and hearing "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" ooze out of speakers. This was it, the music to capture the feeling of the time, to poke fun at the simplistic overreactions that plagued seemingly everyone.
Thanks to "Jail" - in a long-winding yet direct way - I'm no longer allowed to visit the United States I hold so dear. Bern's tale of how he came to be in jail for a night and a day lodged itself so deeply in my mind that it caused me to collapse in front of border patrol, confessing things that never even happened. This is entirely true. "Jail" is also one of the best cannabis legalization songs that no activist I know has ever heard. Go figure.
It's hard to write about "Lithuania." The song demands repeated, active listens. That sounds like a lot for a song to ask of its listener, but for those that take in slowly, let it seep through the cracks, will be rewarded with one the most comforting pieces of aural art this side of Blonde on Blonde. Take a small chunk of your day and give it a listen right now. (The studio version from the EP isn't on the ol' Youtube, but this will do right in this minute if you don't have access to the EP. But you should seek it out and listen to it proper.)
Of everything I’ve covered in the last few thousand words, this is the album I’ve put on the least. It might because it is the only disc that is housed in merely a white slip case with a sticker on the front and nothing more. It gets hidden on the shelf. That surely has to be the reason, because these are some more damned fine songs. “Revolution Begins in the Basement” is a wonderful, quirky full-band tune, though I fail to see what it has to do with real-world revolution. But I’m kind of dumb, so maybe you’ll be better at the finding that connection.
“The Biggest Thing Man Has Ever Done” is a classicist folk song about the impermanence of history. We’re always living in the most extraordinary of times and we always have been. We will be replaced, but it’s not really a tragedy, because, well, nothing really matters. If you listen to “Where Is The Love” at the right time, your heart may attempt to leap out of your throat onto the sidewalk below. “I open up my skull to scream/But the radio’s the only sound,” this might be the only lyric here to have wedged itself into my skull on first listen. It’s still there today. In a more perfect world we’d all listen to “Take Back the New Millennium” once a week, if only to remind ourselves that the world is ours. It doesn’t belong to the Greedheads that are trying to steal love and solace from us. Anthems is a spot in the Bern catalogue that I’ve skipped over too many times. I’m happy to have discovered it here with you, because we all need an Anthem to get us through a day every now and then.
My Country II (2004)
A couple of years before this EP came out I saw Bern play “Sammy’s Bat” at the Victoria Folk Fest. I scoured the internet hoping to find, if not a recording of the song, at least the name of the song. I couldn’t find it. Then this showed up at my record store and when “Sammy’s Bat” came on I lost my mind. I jumped up and down, pointing and shouting at my CD player, “That’s the song! That’s the fucking song!” My girlfriend thought I was insane, but it didn’t matter. I had it. This song about the clusterfuck that is religious extremism and the lunacy that people fight against it with. Everyone is wrong in this argument. There is no winner, except when Bern writes about it and then we all win.
“President” is a wonderful talking blues style song about Bern’s theoretical first term in the most powerful office in the world. People might be more inclined to get behind the President if he or she had this kind of humour and big-picture thinking.
Much like the aforementioned “Take Back the New Millennium” from Anthems, we should all have a regular listen to the title track here because it’s easy to forget that countries don’t belong to governments, they belong to people. It’s a simple and powerful reminder, as needed now as it was a decade ago. My Country II also contains “After the Parade,” which might be the best anti-war song I’ve heard this side of 1973. Written from the point of view of an injured soldier returning home, the song takes a wholly empathetic stance while never glorifying battle or sounding preachy about peace.
Breathe Easy (2006)
According to the Dan Bern discography this was released after Breathe, but that seems strange to me. I figured that because it has the title track, “Breathe,” Breathe Easy was released as a teaser to the full-length record of the same name, but I suppose I was wrong on that. There’s a newly recorded, if unnecessary, version of “Chelsea Hotel” on here also. But the three song that haven’t made an appearance anywhere else are the reasons for this EP to exist. “Storm” is a lovely, rainy-afternoon song that ponders our inability to deal with the major problems of the world. The need we all have to once in awhile hide away from the things we can’t control, curled up under the blankets with someone to share the escape with. “Pride,” about the slow-crumbling of a relationship cuts too close to home for me to listen to it too often. It’s jarring and heart-wrenching and awesome. At the end of this thing sits “Joe Christ.” Jesus, what a damned fine song this is. Imagining Joseph as a bartender coping with the news of his wife’s pregnancy, the song takes on responsibilities of impending fatherhood and the looming doubt of marital infidelity (Because of his condition, “they haven’t actually done it in a year”) with the humanity and humour that anchor Bern’s music at the best of times. If you don’t check out Breathe Easy for any other reason, make sure you find “Joe Christ.”