Grayson Haver Currin reviewing a Gabriel Kahane album might just be the rare case of the reviewer being equally as well-known as the reviewed. After all, GHC, along with his wife Tina, are a fair degree of Internet Famous for their protesting shenanigans, and his name has a way of sticking in your head. From the sound of it, it’s either the name of a 19th Century explorer, like “Grayson Haver Currin, an irascible but uncompromisingly committed sea captain, was last seen travailing the frozen waste beyond his ice-bound ship with a destination northward, ever northward…” or the name of a notorious serial killer, as in “Commonly known as The Carolina Cuttin’ Man, Grayson Haver Currin ended the lives of 38 small town butchers in the burning hot summer of 1968…” Either way, the word-fellow and beard enthusiast GHC has the search engines all wrapped up; no one else has ever put those names in that order.
As for the review’s subject, the album/project Book of Travelers created by Gabriel Kahane has gotten its fair share of write-ups for what is clearly a journalist’s wet-dream of a project as well. It’s got everything journos could want: a sensitive musician from Brooklyn, the 2016 election, the old timey call of the nation’s railways, and a quest to understand what had just happened. Truly, it’s the kind of clickbait that brings all the clicky fish to the pond.
So, any constant Niche reader would see this as yet another excellent opportunity for us to shout into the vastness of the internet’s endless void: STOP DONALD-TR*MPING OUR MUSIC! Indeed, the review’s first four paragraphs are pretty backstory-heavy, i.e. more or less about those prominent events from the end of 2016. However, there’s a twist for us: It’s actually completely legit this time.
GHC’s review for Book of Travelers could be seen as the ultimate version of the politically-attuned review. After all, it opens with the brilliant summation of an artist’s dilemma in our current critical climate: “That leaves the artist with two unattractive options: address the national tension directly and risk making predictable and laughable propaganda, or write about almost anything else and seem privileged to ponder something beyond our urgent existential crises.” This is truly The Rock and the Hard Place of a modern artist’s artistic life, and it’s a line that should probably be plugged in to the beginning of any “This is about Trump” review in the future. So, what’s a Kahane to do?
As Master Haver Currin lays out neatly in paragraph two, Gabriel Kahane has always been mainlining America’s culture and stories for über-folky purposes, so his 13 day train trip through the places and personas of this country is really just par for his Guthrie-esque course, as is the accompanying stage show that he put on at BAM in late 2017. And GHC is fantastically respectful of the journey. Enough so that Kahane could pull a truly majestic quote from the piece for his Facebook page.
Never mind the ellipses, everyone! They loved it!
The first ellipsis cuts out the key “, for better or worse,” thereby editing out the doubts that sometimes appear on the edges of this review. The second ellipsis chops out a few paragraphs, but hey, at least it conveys a full sentence’s sentiment. You’ll note that Kahane doesn’t post this on his Facebook wall: “In his slight croon, each vague query feels like a forced smile—an attempt to avoid drawing the correct conclusion because it may offend someone. In its search for an anchoring idea, the album only finds well wishes.” Nor does it mention the lukewarm 6.8 rating usually only dredged up in honor of run-of-the-mill indie rock records from bands P4K used to celebrate but now only goes through the motions for. (Not that the site’s reviewers have any say in that All-Powerful Numerical Rating…)
I could go on, however, with bits and pieces of earnest coverage that makes this an enticing advert for the album (an album that, in reality, sounds more like a demo for an Off Broadway musical that likely would never get funding but would make the rounds for years on burned CDs), but what follows is my absolute favorite part of the review. Not to be outdone by Gabriel Kahane’s paltry ~9,000 miles of rail travel, GHC notes “I went 66,350 miles in 15 months inside an RV that stopped anywhere that looked interesting.” Ah! Piggybacking on this review to humble-brag/advertise the inevitable travelogue book that’s surely being worked on as we speak/read! People, set your Google Alerts for “Grayson Haver Currin” so you can pre-order your copy of The Ameri-Currin Dream as soon as it’s announced!
But here’s the thing: even though this seems like a not-so-subtle cash-grab tossed into the middle of an otherwise straight-forward review, GHC and Tina HC are incredibly likeable and interesting people. He loves his cat, he loves his wife, they have adventures that dribble with #RelationshipGoals, etc. Even to someone just reading this one review, they’ll probably think to themselves, “Huh… I’d like to hear more about that road trip.” It’s tied in so seamlessly late in the piece, and it dovetails so well thematically with the conclusion that trying to tie America up in a neat little bow of an album is going to be an overall unsatisfying mission, you simply cannot begrudge the biographical trespassing.
Heh heh heh. Signs are fun, and so are these two.
I’ve listened to this album twice, and that’s probably enough. But I’ll follow the pathways of those Haver Currins all the way down that dusty, confused ole American trail…
-David C. Casey