No deep cuts on album about North Dakota as musicians finish up Sufjan Stevens’ 50 states project
If you don’t wax nostalgic (pun intended) for pulling a vinyl record out of its sleeve for the first time, or don’t think “new concert T-shirt” should be a scented candle, you probably don’t know and don’t care.
Hold on there, you hipster-hater who has never sported ironic facial hair.
Stevens is a truly great songwriter who really goes down a rabbit hole when he gets on topic. Want to hear an indie artist’s take on Christmas? His two five-disc collections span the seasonal spectrum, from giddy to sappy to downright sad.
So when the singer-songwriter said in the mid-2000s that he would craft an album for every state, it was an indie music fan’s dream. What would his ukulele ode to North Dakota sound like?
The problem was that while “Michigan” and “Illinois” are really lovely albums, by the end of the decade, even he acknowledged his pledge to sing the songs of the other 48 was hollow as an FM radio publicity stunt.
Any tears in craft beers or coiffed beards can be dried now: The project was revived by comedian Joey Clift, who launched the Our 50 States Project and put out a call for artists to write and record pieces. Each state’s albums are now available for free listening on SoundCloud, which is great, because you’ll never hear the “North Dakota” album on FM radio. Or a department of tourism ad, for that matter.
The cover of “North Dakota,” part of the Our 50 States Project, on SoundCloud. Special to The Forum
Listening to the album, it doesn’t seem like many of the writers are from North Dakota, or even know much about the state, other than it can get cold, there was an oil boom and it borders on South Dakota.
I haven’t listened to all of the other state albums — there’s also ones for Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the territories and even the Moon — but I wonder if the North and South Carolina offerings and the Virginia and West Virginia albums conjure up as much tension between neighbors as the songwriters imagine there is between North and South Dakota.
One of the album’s highlights is the intentionally pathetic “South Dakota Diss Track,” which summons all of the bravado and wordplay of a sixth-grade locker room for a bland border throwdown. Meanwhile, the “South Dakota” album ends with a similar rebuttal, but in offering some facts about Wing, N.D., contains more detail than the whole “North Dakota” album.
Watching the movie “Fargo” seems to be the most research some of the contributors made as the movie and its soundtrack are the basis for “The Search for ‘The Middle of Nowhere.’”
“Oil Boom” could have been the soundtrack to the short-lived ABC series “Blood & Oil,” with its pounding rhythms listing off a litany of oil boom horrors. They are broken up with hushed piano vignettes featuring an overly breathy voice relaying ghost town imagery, like, “A little box in a little room with the little last pieces of Sen. Kevin Cramer’s … heart.” That track already has more than 1,800 listens, which makes it one of the top tracks in the 400 or more that make up this project.
The same won’t happen with “Raccoon Story,” an account of how the 2011 Carrington wrestling team was pulled from a tournament after it was discovered they had brought a wild raccoon on the bus. It’s not “This American Life”-caliber story telling, but it’s one of the few bits on this album grounded in fact.
There are more fun spots on the album. “North by North Dakota” is as light and bouncy as a “Dear John” letter can be.
“North Dakota I Hardly Know Ya” breaks out the banjo to back the inclination of many travelers who leave the Peace Garden State as the last of the 50 to visit. Sure, maybe south Fargo isn’t a huge draw, but north Fargo has the final resting place of Roger Maris. What about New Salem Sue, the world’s largest Holstein cow, or Strasburg, the birthplace of Lawrence Welk, or the Enchanted Highway or Teddy Roosevelt National Park, or the possibility that you will bump into Josh Duhamel just walking around anywhere?
Hey, at least he’s honest about not knowing North Dakota, but it’s pretty clear from most of the other tracks that the writers don’t know much about the state either.
I’m still holding out hope for Sufjan Stevens’ take.
In the meantime, we can always listen to this, or the “Minnesota” album.