Lullaby For The Working Class
In a time when most pop music is, metaphorically speaking, delivered with the speed and depth of e-mail, then Song, the third album from Lullaby For The Working Class, is like a letter that took a long slow journey from America’s heartland to your door. And it’s stuffed with stories, pictures, poems, reveries and memories, along with the dust, scent and sounds of the rooms in which it was crafted. Lullaby's music is always evolving and on Song they have found their own signature sound. They have broadened their scope from their raw acoustic beginnings to create a more texturally dynamic work that both whispers and roars.
Lullaby For The Working Class live in Lincoln, Nebraska and record in their own studio, Whoopass, which has become a creative hub for likeminded local musicians and artists from the Lullaby-run label, Saddle Creek. Unfettered by trends but unafraid of technology, Lullaby creates music with guitars, banjos, strings and the occasional horn section that, arrangement-wise, harkens back to Stephen Foster, but, in performance, has the impassioned immediacy of a great contemporary emo-core combo. The group, which can shift in makeup on tour from standard-size rock band to a motley chamber orchestra, began in 1994 as a duo with Mike Mogis, a gifted arranger and player of multifarious stringed instruments, and Ted Stevens, a guitarist and lyricist whose words are oblique but intense and whose delivery is deeply earnest and emotional. Two years later Mike’s older brother A.J. joined them on upright bass and pal Shane Aspergren on drums (and, occasionally, glockenspiel) and Lullaby became a bonafide band that hit the road to support their Bar/None debut Blanket Warm.
Critics in the U.S. and the U.K. were smitten by their sound and strained to describe exactly what it was. The NME suggested that Ted, with his hard-to-reach high notes, sounded “uncannily like Mick Jagger at his most distraught and debauched.” Request decided they were “a middle-American version of Tindersticks.” Option opted simply to call them “spine-tinglingly gorgeous.” Raygun, declaring their debut “both spontaneous and elegant,” offered perhaps the definitive word on Blanket Warm: “It rocks sedately. It rocks with passion. It rocks back and forth like a dangerous drunk who’s too far gone to do any real damage...”
After touring the U.S. and Europe, where they were met with much critical acclaim, they released their second album, I Never Even Asked For Light, in January, 1998, and it was as spontaneous, elegant, sedate, and passionate as their debut. It was also more complex and ambitious. Jon Pareles of the New York Times recognized Lullaby’s growth: “Played on acoustic instruments, the music seems folksy, but it’s a long way from rustic simplicity.” As a live ensemble, the group could be playful and funny -- a Rolling Stone critic remarked that they had “the alchemy of an acoustic and possibly sober Guided By Voices” -- but their ingratiating collegiate manner belied their accelerating sophistication. In clubs where you typically came to rock out, you couldn’t help but be riveted by their wistful and dreamy, meticulously rendered performances. This was alt- chamber music, unfettered by category, protocol, or the confines of cool.
In the past, Lullaby has not only been inspired by its travels, but has quite literally incorporated them into its work. For the final track of ...Light , the band members had sampled the sounds of themselves standing in the pacific ocean during their first trip out west. Now, as if a journey were simply being resumed, Song opens with the sampled sound of the Lullaby van on the road, and it also serves as a haunting coda at album’s end. It’s no typical, scene-setting sound effect, though, but a hypnotic drone out of which emerge melodies that reach earshot slowly, the way roadside landmarks gradually come into view while you’re driving. The album was produced back home in a rather atypical fashion: the songs of Song were recorded in sequence, so it became more of a seamless performance than just a collection of tunes. Lullaby employed a live string quartet and horn section for these sessions and they weren’t afraid to jumble genres in a single piece, juxtaposing classical strings, for example, with country-style pedal steel and dobro. Their current musical influences are typically diverse and sometimes surprising: Sonic Youth, minimalist composers Tony Conrad and Arnold Dreyblatt, Led Zeppelin (who definitely knew how to employ amazing string arrangements), folk guitarists Leo Kottke and John Fahey, even Metallica.
You may find your own comparisons, if you want to try and pin this thing down and give it a name. Better just to climb in the van with the guys, listen to the drone, and be transported.
I NEVER EVEN ASKED FOR LIGHT
Lullaby for the Working Class are a somewhat stange and mysterious band with a name to match. Sometimes they've explained their name as a quote from Tolstoy. Other times they say it was inspired by the lead singer's job in a mattress store. (Does that explain the silk-screened pillowcases they sell at gigs?) Then there is the band itself; an ever-evolving group of musicians based in Lincoln, Nebraska with the Mogis brothers and Ted Stevens as the mainstays with a variety of instrumentalists to accompany them. To date there have been more than 32 different group members.
From their very first demo tape it was obvious this was not your ordinary indie-schmindie rock combo. LFTWC were all acoustic, they didn't even bring amps on tour, neither were they a traditional folk act. Although they had learned some things from their elders ( a number of them were music school grads) they were also steeped in the latest sounds of various experimental noise makers. So with a decided classical bent to their involved arrangements, an all-acoustic presentation, and with a keen interest in things "cutting edge," Lullaby for the Working Class released their first album.
The group,formed in the winter of 1994, started as a duet of Mike Mogis, playing guitar, banjo, mandolin, and several other auxiliary instruments; and Ted Stevens, who sings and plays guitar. Their songs were written and recorded without any public appearances until April of 1996, and during this year and a half of writing and recording.
Lullaby added A.J. Mogis (Mike's older brother) on upright bass, When they first arrived in New York in the summer of 1996 they looked like your average rag tag twenty-something college students. But when they stepped out of their sports fishing camper to hit the stage at CBGB's they were transformed into a debonair bunch of young men in suits and ties. Since then they have toured the country extensively, performing with dates with Palace, Smog, Lambchop and Luna. In October of '97 they head to Europe for the first time.
Critics seemed intrigued by their indefinable sound and a lot of ink was generated for their debut album Blanket Warm... Many cited the "No Depression" acoustic bands (Wilco - Uncle Tupelo - Place Bros.etc.) while the NME thought lead singer Ted Steven sounded "uncannily like Mick Jagger at his most distraught and debauched." PUNCTURE called the album "an indie Astral Weeks" while AP claimed they had "sneaked in through the window left open by the Dirty Three, Rachel's and Tortoise....Rock is dead they say. Long Live post-rock." Lullabyare at the center of a vibrant music scene in Lincoln, Nebraska. They run their own label, Saddle Creek Records and put out music by area musicians who often record in the Mogis brothers Whoopass Studio. The title for their new album I Never Even Asked For Light comes from a line in a track burned into the very end of their CD as an unlisted "secret" extra track. In the song Ted sings about approaching a city from the far off countryside. "It begins as gravel dust and ends in skyscraper." In a sense the album evokes a journey to the heart of a city and then back to its outskirts.
The album starts off with the sound of birds and wind in the trees behind the Mogis household. The birds are joined by Ted and Mike on the back porch for the opening track. "The trees in my backyard were going to be cut down and I wanted to preserve them," explained Mike. "Somehow its nice to be able to hear those leaves rustle." The album closes with another ambient recording: The final section of "The Man Vs. the Tide" was actually recorded while the band stood in the Pacific ocean on their first west coast tour. In between those recordings one hears the vast array of the Lullaby arsenal of sound and the architectural solidity of their arrangements (like a great glistening city?) built around the blended sonics of guitar, ukulele, banjo, mandolin, trumpet, trombone, glockenspiel, dulcimer, kalimba and air organ. Former Bar None staffer Ken Beck even got to play a little French Horn.
"Call it revenge of the band kids," say Alternative Press, 'you know-the ones who paid attention during music class ; the ones who practiced...LFTWC are those kids, now adults, who are still unashamed of things that jangle, tinkle, toot and chime. They are men making pretty music about sometimes ugly things."
Lullaby for the Working Class, formed in the winter of 1994 in Lincoln, Nebraska, originally as a duo, with Mike Mogis, master of the stringed instrument and Ted Stevens, singer, songwriter and acoustic guitar. Shortly thereafter A.J. Mogis (a sibling) and Shane Aspegren were added on upright bass and drums & glockenspiel respectively. The songs for Blanket Warm, their debut recording were written and recorded between 1994 and April 1996 at Whoopass Studios, which, incidentally is owned by the Brothers Mogis. A tape found its way to Bar/None in early 1996 which caught the attention of all. A second tape was requested- the result, Blanket Warm.
Up to this point the band had never performed live but this didn't deter them from booking a tour all the way to New York City and back, a total of maybe twelve dates with three in Gotham alone.
Talk about a baptism of fire- their first New York date in front of their new label at CBGB's Gallery was of Spinal Tap proportions. From the moment they stepped on stage, it took 20 minutes or more before they played their first song, equipment failure, humming noises, you name it, it happened. It didn't matter, they were great. They've since been back to New York for the CMJ New Music Festival and moved an appreciative audience.
Lullaby are part of a network of Nebraska bands including Commander Venus, Cursive, Norman Baylor and We'd Rather Be Flying, who play in each others groups and support each other financially, musically and spiritually and the Brothers Mogis record them all. They also release records on their own Lumberjack Records (Vinyl copies of Blanket Warm are available on Lumberjack as well as Lullaby's four-song single, "Consolation".
Mike and Ted are also handy around the kitchen- they are currently working on a recipe and a tour to accompany Blanket Warm, which itself is a blend of Let It Bleed period Stones, a dash of Gram Parsons, a whisper of Tindersticks, a slice of Lambchop, but with a flavor all its own. It's ready to taste.
1996 Consolation (4 songs) (Saddle Creek)
1997 In Honor Of My Stumbling (4 songs) (Saddle Creek)
1997 The Hypnotist (4 songs) (Rykodisc Europe)
1999 The Ebb and Flo The Come and Go the To and Fro (one long song) (Saddle Creek)