While the rest of us have been busy wondering who is going to become the next president of the United States, three musicians (Jefferson Pitcher of New York, and J. Matthew Gerken and Christian Kiefer, both from Sacramento, CA) have decided instead to look back at the previous occupants of this country's highest office. The result is an ambitious musical opus Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies.
As well as writing a third of the tracks each, Gerken, Kiefer, and Pitcher also recruited an impressive cabal of guests to help them with recording duties, including Low's Alan Sparhawk, Bill "Smog" Callahan, and Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters. In total, there are around 100 musicians and artists credited with helping to create an impressive package that, despite the name, is much more than just a collection of 43 songs.
Which is good news, as the music would have to be pretty extraordinary to carry us through all three CDs and 219 years of history alone. As it is, there are some exceptional tracks, with the highlights ranging in style from the gentle alt-country of "Rough and Ready" (which covers the incumbency of Zachery Taylor, 1849-50) and "Helicopters Above Oakland" (Ulysses S. Grant, 1869-77), all the way to the haunting, Mogwai-esque drone of "There Was No Longer Use to Hide the Fact That It Was Gout" (William Howard Taft, 1909-13). But elsewhere the tone sometimes errs towards the overly somber and wordy, both of which are understandable sins given many of the themes being tackled (you try writing a song about the threat of secession and make it sound poppy or pithy).
Which means that if you think of this as just another triple album about the U.S. presidency, then you might end up feeling a little disappointed by the end. But to concentrate only on the music is to miss the point, as this project offers much more: quirky lessons in our history and mythology, some intriguing works of poetry (both written and performed), an entertaining series of potted presidential political biographies, and art -- an accompanying book features original illustrations printed alongside lyrics for each track. Even the song titles read like miniature historical haikus, such as the description of Thomas Jefferson as the "The Mouldboard of Least Resistance," or the image of Nixon "2 Under Par Off the Coast of Africa."
Having said this, Of Great and Mortal Men won't provide you with a particularly comprehensive history lesson either, so you might need to do a bit of additional research as you listen, to get the most from the experience. Such effort is richly rewarded though. While many listeners may be tempted to skip straight to the end to hear the verdict handed down to the man who has spent the past eight years doing his best to ruin the reputation of the presidency ("I hope I did my best. I hope my friends stay rich. I hope my dad is proud."), the most intriguing insights are found lurking in the older, forgotten corners of the Oval Office.
For example, Bill Callahan's contribution "In Hindsight" tells the story of John Tyler (1841-45), the first vice president to stumble into the big job upon the death of his boss. His legacy has been tarnished as a consequence, but Callahan could sing the phone book and give it an unexpected, quiet dignity. When he intones "I'll be a hero, back in Virginia," what is seen by many as a tale of dumb luck becomes something far more noble. "They woke me and said it was my time. By god they'll remember me now."
Elsewhere we learn about everything from George Washington's hippo teeth to Truman's doubts over the bombing of Hiroshima. These illuminations, both grand and humbling, provide fresh perspectives on lives you thought you already knew and others you'll be surprised never to have heard of.
Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies is out now via the Standard Recording Company.