If David Bowie had wandered down from the Appalachian Mountains, he might have made 20009 (pronounced, by the way, "two thousand-ousand nine"). Wallace Cochran and Jeff Stolz, the main players in Drakkar Sauna, have crafted a mountain folk album about the development of the rocket. The disc covers, according to them, everything "from Hermes Trismegistus and the cults of ancient Egypt up to the 23rd century."
Pretty lofty concept, isn't it? Well, set it aside, along with tracks like the spoken space log of "Don't Hex a Polygon" and the goofy chanting of "Tuvan Moon." Becuase this disc, unlike some of those Bowie affairs, isn't about the concept. It's about the songs. And each is as strong as the next.
These are percussive songs, even with no real drums around. Guitars snap off chords. Pianos clang out notes. Feet stomp (both yours and the band's). Over that, Stolt and Cochran deliver frayed emotion, much realer and heart-felt than anything should coming from a cheesy sci-fi concept. "The Long Sovereignty," though it mentions colonies and oxygen tanks, is all heartbroken beauty. Verses bounce along on a floorboard stomp and lively group shouts. But then it drops into a slow, dripping haze on the chorus, and the lines ache out. "My heart has been replaced by stalks of wheat/ Now I'm the bread that no one eats," they sing toward the end of the song, driving its isolation home.
Isolation, fear of death, longing for love: These are the things 20009 lives in. And through acoustic instruments, like the seething according or the dry-pluck banjo, these guys pull out emotion electric. Their main strength is the interplay between their ragged picking and their pristine vocal harmonies. These two sing perfectly together, and with a surprising heft. Whether they're sing-shouting deadpan lines or keening out a teary phrase, Stolz and Cochran can flat-out sing with a staggering range. Plus, they deliver all that deep emotion without neglecting dark humor. "My father is one of the engineers," they sing at one point. "I don't know which one, but my mother should." It hilarious to hear, but it's also steeped in the searching and alienation of the album, which is why it works so well.
From the cartoonish artwork to the silly title, there's no way this album should hit home the way it does. But these guys make each song feel, before they think about how it fits their loose structure. Because when I hear the driving piano of "A Table Of Food," I'm not thinking about how it fits into the concept. I'm not thinking about any other part of 20009 just then. I'm thinking how damn good the song is. I'm just soaking it in. Until the next great song starts.
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