Maybe the album is an obsolescent art form, soon to be as rare as a newly-composed epic poem. Maybe Martin Jack Rosenblum realized this when he recorded his latest collection of songs and titled it Ice Thorn: Singles (Collection). Or maybe not. Perhaps Rosenblum is an unconscious, postmodern Homer who unknowingly disguised his Odyssey as a set of discrete journeys, his ego unaware of what his id had arranged.
The songs on Ice Thorn were intended to stand alone without the mutual references and running themes found on most of Rosenblum’s recordings. That they actually do refer to each other and carry on a set of themes long established in Rosenblum’s body of work is an irony for its creator and a delicious surprise for listeners. Although several of Ice Thorn’s songs clock in at the length of a classic pop single, the medium of AM radio, or of MP3 downloads, is not Rosenblum’s natural field of endeavor. His influences are broad and draw from many media, many epochs, yet as a recording artist he is most comfortable working within the timeframe of a long-playing album.
Unlike most recording acts of recent years, Rosenblum is able to fill the frame with evocative sketches from life. He can’t help himself. Rosenblum is always alluding to stories that can’t be told in four minutes or less. He is an artist with an epic imagination cursed to live in a world of shrinking expectations.
Ice Thorn reveals unsuspected levels of Rosenblum’s artistry. Opening the album, “Howlin’ Wolf Drives Past” suggests an unlikely encounter between the Band on a psychedelic trip and Derek and the Dominoes. The majestic sweep of divergent dynamics, from dream state to hard rock, establishes the mood for the lyrics and the tone for the entire album. Here, Howlin’ Wolf is as spooky as his name, a symbol for the mysterious essence of the blues and a reproach to the banality of contemporary music. Wolf also reproaches the song’s narrator for sins of omission, for not swimming hard enough against the tide of cultural indifference.
The Band is a reference through much of Ice Thorn; “Walking Through” suggests a missing track from The Basement Tapes—or a rock band anachronistically gathered around the piano in an Old West saloon. The good-time Americana obscures without eclipsing the dangerous crossroads where the narrator, resembling the man we met in “Howlin’ Wolf Drives Past,” confronts the conflicting pull of art and domesticity.
Echoing Rosenblum’s previous CD, Omen Dirt (Low-5), “Choked Up” is a raw field recording from the heart of darkness. Rosenblum’s harshly-plucked guitar grates against the booming, off-sync percussion of what sounds like a Salvation Army band stranded on a bleak corner in a bad part of town. Although written after Omen Dirt, it conveys the same angry desperation. With its reference to a public hanging, “Welded” can be read in light of Omen Dirt’s central song, “Standing on the Gallows.” A disturbing stare at a world where the signposts are misspelled and the lights are going out, “Welded” is reminiscent of Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk, a forceful reinvention of Mississippi Delta rhythms with shades of psychedelia.
“The Letter” continues to push the blues to the edge of the abyss, conjuring the hellhounds of Robert Johnson amid bursts of feedback and sawing violin. The words bristle with anger and disappointment at a muse who has succumbed to darkness. “What You Want” recapitulates the mood of the album’s opener. Its narrator criticizes himself for spinning his wheels in a deepening rut of inaction; its music has the nobility of the Band in an elegant moment from Blonde on Blonde.
Along with the songs themselves and the performances of Rosenblum’s band, Werewolf Sequence, the contribution of producer Mike Hoffmann was crucial in shaping Ice Thorn. Positioning microphones in unconventional settings, Hoffmann played the walls and ceiling of his studio as if they were instruments. Ice Thorn has a resonance lacking in most contemporary CDs, which sound as if they materialized inside a digital purgatory, a limbo lacking depth.
Far from being the collection of singles threatened by its subtitle, Ice Thorn: Singles (Collection) plays like a great lost album from circa 1970. The music balances roughness and grace and harmonizes the performances of individuals in a tight but spontaneous ensemble; the lyrics trace a web of allusions to regret over a world gone awry and potential unfulfilled.
David Luhrssen is Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Shepherd Express, Milwaukee’s weekly newspaper, and coauthor of A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890.
1. Howlin’ Wolf Drives Past
2. Walking Through
5. The Letter
6. What You Want
1. Martin Jack Rosenblum: guitar, vocal; James Redding, drums; Karl Lerud, bass; Allen Russell, violin; Kiran Vedula, organ. Backup vocal: Dusters.
2. Martin Jack, guitar, vocal, harmonica; James, drums; Karl, bass; Allen, violin; Kiran, piano. Backup vocal: Hunters.
3. Martin Jack, guitar, vocal; James, Karl, Allen, Kiran: Steel Rope Vintage Bottle Rockets.
4. Martin Jack, guitar, vocal; James, drums; Karl, bass; Kiran, organ. Backup vocal: Stoners.
5. Martin Jack, guitar, vocal; James, guitar, piano; Karl, bass; Allen, violin.
6. Martin Jack, guitar, vocal; James, piano; Karl, bass; Allen, violin; Kiran, drums.
Produced By Michael Hoffmann.
Mastered By Trevor Sadler.
Words And Music Copyright 2007 By Martin Jack Rosenblum.
Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum is an Artist Endorsee for Gibson Guitars, Montana, and has performed under twenty-five albums and over twenty-six books; he is a lecturer in music history and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Historian Emeritus for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and on Flying Fish/Rounder Records.