Eli Van Sickel
51:49 min • www.elivs.bandcamp.com • July 15, 2012
Out of the Midwest wastelands of Terre Haute, IN, comes an album of stark and brutally honest folk from Eli Van Sickel. Middle West is the musician’s sixth release over the past four years and it’s easily his strongest yet. Recorded in an apartment with one mic, the album’s lo-fi production becomes almost another instrument to accompany his guitar and vocals. Eli paints a very realistic picture of what it is to live in the Midwest, the struggles, the triumphs and the dreams for something bigger and better.
Opening with the brief instrumental ‘Maybe Someday (I)’, a somber minute and a half of guitar that sets the mood for album. While it’s tone may be stark, there’s a string of hopefulness through it that provides the ideal intro for this record.
‘Queen City’ kicks off the album in earnest, a portrait of Eli’s hometown, which could be Anywhere, Midwest. It’s small and traditional, with its own stories, its own heroes and villains, it ain’t the biggest, it ain’t the prettiest, but Eli still loves it, singing out “Queen City, shine your light on me”. Accompanied by his guitar and clapping, Eli knows that there is beauty and poetry in this no name, nowhere town.
And that’s the direction of the first half of the LP, Eli painting a picture of his surroundings, such as the third cut, ‘The Woman in White in the Wheat Field’, where he describes a beautiful barefoot young woman in the wheat field. He can’t decide if she’s real or if she’s just a vision of the beauty he sees in his hometown. His surroundings are further personified through ‘Rainy Road’, a lonely ballad about the rhythm of the rain singing along with his music, becoming another instrument in his life and ‘North Side and Neon’ where he rambles about the social disconnection he feels on Facebook, how his friends have become nothing but digital images, there’s no flesh and blood left. It’s an excellent, old-styled “talking blues” number.
The masterpiece of the first half of the album is the seven-and-a-half minute ‘Prayer/Confession’, a folk blues ramble about his life where he is, his pining for a good home-cooked meal, some real true love and his desire to get away from the dumpy apartment he calls home. As he said “I’m in a fuck it mood tonight and the walls are coming down”. He opens his soul and lets himself speak freely without reservation with his ever-present guitar accompanying him and us through a journey of his mind.
The short instrumental ‘Interlude’ leads into the second half of the album where Eli steps beyond his surroundings and sings of the characters in his hometown he knows and loves.
‘Hippy King’ is one of the most light-hearted numbers on the album, a jumpy blues song about a man described as, well the “hippy king”, a guy who always has the best dope and knows the best new bands. He ain’t too good at hacky sack, but he was good at everything else you need to do to be a good hippy. The King eventually leaves town, heading back to Colorado “where the hippies flock”, but Eli knows a new one will come to take his place.
The next track brings the album back to a starker tone, ‘I Dreamed About You’, a classic about the long-told tale about the girl who got away. It’s a tale as old as time, written about and sang about a thousand times before, but Eli’s voice makes it his own. This ain’t no throw away cut, this stands strong with the rest.
Undoubtedly, the strongest cut of the second half is ‘What I Really Want to Be When I Grow Up’, a track about growing old to see the continuing beauty of life. Eli looks forward to old age, to watch the leaves continue to fall and the seasons continuing to change. He doesn’t dread growing old, to him it’s a chance to keep seeing life and the new things that come with it. His slick-fingers on his guitar show their chops here with a dizzying array of chords and changes throughout the song. His joy for life is expressed no more fully than through this song.
The second half closes just as the first half opens, with an instrumental, this one called ‘Maybe Someday (II)’. It’s two and a half minutes of Eli’s guitar, bringing a fitting, bluesy closer to this great album.
Eli has delivered one of the best albums of American Midwestern music to come out in a long time. It’s beautiful and brutally honest in its depiction of life for those of us living there. He is a true poet with a guitar.
This album is available at his Bandcamp page: