by Donovan Wheeler
featured image by Jeremy Black
courtesy of The Dogmatics
Yes, traditional poetry still exists. Talented writers can still settle down on a park bench, scrawl out a quatrain’s worth of observations in trochaic tetrameter, patch it together with an alternating rhyme scheme, and find a publisher who will run it through a first printing. But it is in music…that energetically pleasing vehicle buoying the lyrics which rest upon it…that’s where poetry thrives today. Since the days when some misbegotten English teacher in the UK tried to break down Beatles lyrics (sending John Lennon into such an apoplexy that he wrote “I Am the Walrus” just to mess with him) we have gradually conditioned ourselves to listen through the four-count beat, the supporting bassline, and the rhythm guitar. Eventually we hear the words echoing from the speakers in our earbuds. In this modern world, the poet is the songwriter, and the bard is his bandmate. If you don’t believe me, ask the Nobel Committee for Literature at the Swedish Academy, because they settled the matter this year.
Here in Western Indiana, Greencastle’s newest musical incarnation is top full of talent. A seven-person arrangement with decades of experience at some posts and budding raw skills at others, The Dogmatics easily stands out for their musical ability alone. In a live setting their sound is very good. Veterans like Steve Michael, Bill Hamm, and Rick Provine long ago learned how to read cues and adapt mid set (mid song even when it comes to these guys). Add the additional sounds of Veronica Pejril’s keys and Heather Sloan’s mallets, and the band coalesces creating a bluesy, folksy, rock vibe which guarantees a great time.
“For me this album, as imperfect as parts of it are, is beautiful beyond my imagination. Everybody produced peak artistry, and none of us had any expectations. We just landed in the zone for a year.”
But in those live sessions—with those blurted shouts of fellow bar patrons which pass for conversation and those IPA microbes crawling around in your grey matter—the experience is sometimes more visceral than it is cogent. Even if say we’re listening to a cover band instead…even when we know the words…we mostly go through the motions, singing along, smiling with our buddies, never really contemplating why Billy Joel’s lunatic told dirty jokes to that girl sitting in her electric chair. But once you strap on that pair of headphones, and give The Dogmatics’ eponymous freshman record a spin, then in short order that communal experience of music in the bar expands into something transcendent as well. In that isolated, intimate atmosphere we call “man and iPod,” Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s poetic lyricism animates across the wide range of Juliana Goldsmith’s vocals.
“For me this album, as imperfect as parts of it are, is beautiful beyond my imagination,” Csicsery-Ronay explains. “Everybody produced peak artistry, and none of us had any expectations. We just landed in the zone for a year.” All of the singles from that year-long zone are smart. This we expect from Csicsery-Ronay, a songwriter drawing from an Ivy-League pedigree and a lifetime of work in front of a college classroom. But what makes the record indelible is the way Ronay can mask bold statements about the condition of modern life under the guise of lighthearted blues, as he does with the record’s third track, “Honky Tonk Credo:”
I believe in a honky tonk Jesus;
I believe in a honky tonk God.
I believe when they lay me in the earth
It’ll be in honky tonk sod.
I believe in a Holy Trinity;
You know what I mean.
Holy coffee bean.
The record is earmarked by a strong assortment of traditional blues-folk tunes hearkening to the common lamentations of lost love and missed opportunities. Be they the slow, swaying variety like “You Keep Coming into My Head,” or in the form of more upbeat songs such as the album’s lead track “The Last One to Let Go,” each title consistently delivers on its implicit promise to bring satisfying melody, technical musical delivery, moving vocals, and well written artistry.
But it’s the poetry which ultimately hooks me. As good a wordsmith as Ronay is, he wins me with the record’s fifth track, “Marching to Fallujah:”
If I believe in God and country,
I might ask a question.
But I don’t believe in anything
‘Cept gettin’ home on the next connection.
Never been so far from Geneva,
Never been so close to Hell.
Marching to Fallujah,
Gonna bring it down.
Marching to Fallujah,
Level with the ground.
After a mini set of up-and-down blues variations, “Fallujah’s” breakaway rock rhythm (reminding us of the power-ballad tempo from the ‘80’s) presents a musically articulate deviation at the album’s midway point. But real power of “Fallujah” lies in the words, in their stirring artistic paradox: a beat evoking a sense of joy delivering a message best described as thoughtful contemplation. And that’s the thing about Ronay and The Dogmatics. Some songs are light, some carry more weight, but none of what they do is high-minded or pretentious. All of it is sound. Every bit of it is fun. Whether they play a seemingly irreverent ditty or an overtly heavy track, everything in The Dogmatics’ new record is explicitly real.
“The Last One to Let Go” — Courtesy of The Dogmatics