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Janet Bean and the Concertina Wire - Dragging Wonder Lake

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Artist: Janet Bean and the Concertina Wire

Album: Dragging Wonder Lake

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jul. 8, 2003

Haunted and Lonely

It’s relatively rare, in country music, to find songs that make the listener feel awkward. Usually, country music registers on a more comforting, melancholic level, the perfect soundtrack for drinking beer and reminiscing. This is reductive, of course, but it is a peculiarity of the genre that it is rather consistent about its intentions and supposed responses. No one listens to Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson to feel strange and unnerved, just as few people listen to Limp Bizkit in the bath. There are, of course, musicians who have taken country’s basic template and stretched it to their own twisted ends, such as Ween, but generally speaking, country does what it sets out to do.

Not so with Janet Bean, who has crafted an immensely detailed, haunting, and slightly bizarre country record in Dragging Wonder Lake. Singer/drummer with Eleventh Dream Day and one part of the duo Freakwater, Bean has established herself as both a talented songwriter and a capable performer of country music. With Dragging Wonder Lake, however, she has subtly tweaked the possibilities of country, writing songs that appear on their surface to be standard genre excursions, but prove on closer inspection to be something much more unusual.

A large part of her unique sound results from the participation of many Chicago musical luminaries, including cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and fellow Eleventh Dream Day member Doug McCombs. John McEntire has also come on board for production duties, resulting in an album that carries a spooky, unnerving vibe, constantly subverting the listener’s emotional expectations. Strange, scraping cello echoes throughout; a piano chord goes out of key; Bean whispers something about “blood and bone / showing through”. For all the beauty and grace of the album, it never settles into the more easily accessible routine of much country music, and thankfully so – while Gram Parsons sounds undeniably great in a bar around closing time, there are far too many poseur country-revivalists content with fake Southern accents and a generous helping of pedal steel guitar.

This is not to say, however, that Dragging Wonder Lake is some kind of prolonged exercise in confronting its listener. Far from it. It is, rather, a meticulously arranged album that uses country music as a something to be explored and reconsidered. And for all the strange moments, there are some absolutely beautiful ones: the loping, improvised piano intro on “Suddenly” and the understated, mournful lament of “Paper Thin” are just two standouts on an album that rarely falters. And, while there are a couple of moments that sound alarmingly like late-1980s Bonnie Raitt, McEntire generally provides a sure hand with the production. There’s even a white noise-peppered rendition of Randy Newman’s “The God Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)."

Bean’s take on country demonstrates how easily we are satisfied by familiarity, and how rich musical experiences can be when boundaries are broken down, even slightly. Dragging Wonder Lake is not a radical record by any stretch of the imagination, but it does present an original vision. That it manages to do this while simultaneously upholding the genre’s virtues is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of the musicians, who manage to make all of this sound effortless and completely natural.

By Jason Dungan

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