Unless you’re the type of person walking around sporting a Make America Great Again hat, you probably don’t feel particularly enthusiastic about the current state of affairs. And if you’re young (for the sake of this review and my own self-esteem, let’s say “young” is the age 33 and below), well, forget about it.
You’re already part of the first generation expected to fare worse economically than the preceding one. The chasm between the haves and have-nots is widening, and it’s not because there are more haves. Then throw in climate change, rapidly deteriorating race relations, and a gleeful social malevolence from elected officials. These leaders aren’t a part of your age group and they were voted in by folks a generation or two older than you. As a young person, how would all this make you feel?
Helpless. Ostracized. And if you’re 10 String Symphony, the duo of fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Baiman, you also feel frustrated. It’s those emotions at the core of the pair’s new album, Generation Frustration.
The product of a trip to Scotland and collaboration with folk experimentalist Kris Drever, Generation Frustration finds 10 String Symphony exploring new lyrical and musical terrain and seamlessly incorporating them into the traditional Americana/folk palette laid out on their first two albums.
The urgency draws you in from the title track opener. With one fiddle part playing a mournful lamentation and the other an anxious up-tempo rhythm, Baiman sings:
I see what’s unfair and what’s always been so
And I’ve got the courage but no horn to blow
So I write down a song, the only thing left
And I give it my all, yeah I do my best
And I wonder if songs ever reach stubborn minds
Can it make you believe we’re on the same side
Me and my friends we all watch the news
We’ve got that helplessness, we’ve got that helplessness blues
That combination of the personal and political and the struggle to find connections on both fronts that weaves its way through the album’s 10 tracks. The whimsy charm of songs past like “Peggy-O” or “Even a Dog Has Dreams” has been replaced by the existential dread of “Anxious Annie.” Behind a breezy melody, Baiman sings from the perspective of the lost and lonely subject of the song, pleading:
I close my eyes,
I feel the ceiling
Coming down on me like a boxing glove
Well I don’t wanna worry, don’t wanna cry
And I don’t wanna be afraid to die
That loneliness carries through the next few songs. “I Can’t Have You Anymore” is a gorgeous rumination on a lover that’s gone, while “One Way Telephone” is a wish to have a meaningful conversation with a former partner and all the things that were and weren’t said. Sandwiched between this is the Sedelmyer-penned instrumental “F_ckin’ Up.” It’s built around Sedelmyer’s torrid fiddle work and a tasty banjo lick, acting as a tumultuous interlude to connect the two ballads.
It’s not all angst and alienation, however. Glimmers of light shine through. “The Ballad of Bruno” is a rollicking little waltz. In the midst of a tale about a skewed power dynamic, Baiman points out the wonderful vastness of the world and sings, “You cannot cage the winds of thought or keep the truth at bay.”
At a moment in time where cynicism and disillusionment can be the default, it’s nice to hear someone express that sentiment and do it believably.