When I listen to Slow Dakota's The Ascension of Slow Dakota, I imagine some room hidden off in an endless, storied estate. It's a room with hints of light seeping through the pulled blinds, and within the stained wood walls it feels as if you've stumbled across square footage time forgot. The musty smell of aged book pages, withered leather chairs and maybe pipe tobacco lingers in the air. A spotless grand piano sits in the corner, along with fading composition pages with poems attempted but abandoned long ago.
Fort Wayne-born and -bred PJ Sauerteig's Slow Dakota is a passion project that melds the lives of a poet, musician and historian all into one Midwestern-bred body and spirit. Sauerteig summons the ghosts of Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath and Sherwood Anderson and embodies their wordsmith genius with the likes of modern musical poets like Sufjan Stevens, Conor Oberst and even hints of Van Dyke Parks. The Ascension of Slow Dakota is a stunning work of Midwestern baroque pop.
PJ Sauerteig is a lover of words and story. He is also a lover of musical art. His songs feel not like stories really, but more snapshots of what may seem as insignificant moments. But these are the moments that make up ones life.
Sherwood Anderson took the mundane and made it something more in his classic Winesburg, Ohio. Small town life was really a microcosm for life and death.
On Slow Dakota's Midwest opus, Sauerteig brings us into these little moments and shows us that they're more than insignificant, but what makes a life a life. Modern and classic motifs come together musically, as on the whimsical "The Lilac Bush." Syncopated rhythm carries keys and Sauerteig's Ed Droste-like vocals. It's a compelling song that pulls you in and doesn't let go.
"Paul, Pining For His Wife" is beautiful and heartbreaking. Sauerteig sings, "Early in the morning I go out with boots and ruffled hair / Something you would always do before / Down to gather water from the creek behind the neighbors' house, / But the bucket's far too hard to lift."
"Proverbs, After Vangelis" takes inspiration from its namesake with woozy synths that take us from the heartland to a chromed-out future. Sauerteig sounds a bit like Wayne Coyne on this track, but lyrically we're still hearing stories of people we may or may not know. "My aunt Donna Says she has the language To talk to birds. And Donna's older sister Mary Regularly talks to dead men: It's true, it's true!" PJ Sauerteig sings over synths and an 80s wash of neon color. The song ends with a Stephen Hawking-like voice speaking of "Heaven" and "language."
Speaking of voices, there are also interludes of spoken word peppered throughout the album, giving a nod to Slow Dakota's literary fancies. "A Competition," "A Mistranslation," "John of Patmos" and "Whitman Crossing the Sky to Spain" are all spoken-word pieces, the last of which tells of an imagined plane flight with Walt Whitman joining the mile-high club.
Slow Dakota, aka PJ Sauerteig, has created a pastoral album that owes a debt to classical literary ghosts as well as the compact pop symphonies of earlier Sufjan Stevens, Bright Eyes, and even at times Youth Lagoon. The Ascension of Slow Dakota is a beautifully ornamented album that feels like a timeless classic work itself.
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