Quick quiz for the Midwest-impaired: which is the most unhip state in the union? Well, it ain’t Nebraska anymore (if it ever was). Since the late ’80s (at least), the quiet confines of the Cornhusker state have nurtured and incubated an oddly talented and eclectic crop of local musicians that some have come to call a scene. Following the anarchic splurge of crusty-punk bands captured on the legendary DIY compilation Fishing With Tapeworms, fondly remembered indie juggernauts like Cellophane Ceiling and Mercy Rule and persistently eccentric wandering souls like Simon Joyner and Gabe Cahill, the few sensitive kids who have chosen to remain in Nebraska (that excludes Elliott Smith, Nick Nolte and Matthew Sweet) have damned the rest of the country as well as their college-football-worshipping state brethren. One of the leading bands from this realm was undoubtedly Lincoln’s Lullaby for the Working Class, a quiet, unassuming collective more influenced by Nashville Skyline than Blonde on Blonde. Over the course of five years and three albums, they made a habit of both delighting and confusing critics, record store owners and others in the know who frequently mistake their ignorance for others’ genius. In the case of Lullaby, for once they were right.
Signed to Bar/None in 1995 (the full-length releases on Mogis’s Saddle Creek label are the vinyl versions) on the strength of two demos and zero live shows, Lullaby recorded Blanket Warm at Lincoln’s Whoopass Studios, owned and operated by Lullaby co-founder Mike Mogis (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and his brother A.J. (string bass). With its nature-themed low-fi sound, this delicate collection of acoustic songs about wintertime, love, death, Eskimos and, of course, girls offered a welcome change from the indulgences of grunge. Blanket Warm broke with time-honored traditions of Midwest underground music, ignoring the crass caterwauling of punch-in-the-face punk in favor of the long off-limits influences of country, folk and pure pop, with clumsily plucked Uncle Tupelo-esque banjos and mournful cellos in place of the abrasive pelvic thrust of area rockers like Paw, Kill Whitey and Stick who had made it all the way to MTV. The trademark of Lullaby’s aesthetic was, from the start, the reserved, eccentric songwriting of vocalist Ted Stevens, whose lyrics — from archaic to indecipherable — strove to capture emotions more complex than the sexual frustration of the long-haired, torn-jeans crowd, or at least to express it in a more sophisticated fashion. The sparse “Spreading the Evening Sky With Crows,” a song about someone’s ex-girlfriend, includes improbably heartbreaking references to lawn chairs, wrinkles and philosophical old women — not exactly “Love Me Do.” And the “hibernating” laundry mats and liquor stores which decorate the impressionistic sighs of the somber “February North 24th St” would have undoubtedly been overlooked by most songwriters this side of John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) and other failed novelists.
After several months of touring, the band returned to Lincoln in late 1996 to record I Never Even Asked for Light, the album which codified the band’s sound. The band’s commitment to acoustic instruments and collective expression remains, but brisker tempos make “Hypnotist (song for Daniel H.)” and “The Sunset & the Electric Bill” sound almost militaristic in comparison to the previous album’s lazy afternoon musings. Lyrically, Stevens attempts to explain all the mysteries of the universe, incorporating Greek mythology, dancing robots and the sea into his abstract imagery. Suffering the identity crisis of poet versus pop merchant, he drifts closer to convolution here, swaying from the simply stupid (“Tea to coffee / is man to woman”) to the sort of faux profundity endemic to indie-rock (“Show me how to love / And I’ll show you how to beg”). As a result, I Never Even Asked for Light at times lags and even threatens the nihilistic conundrum of a concept album, particularly in the three songs (all titled “The Man vs. the Tide”) that end it. Ultimately, the album displays the band’s eccentricities and originality more than it fulfills the innocent promise of Blanket Warm. Leaving behind the Will Oldham-like whimsy of the debut, Lullaby had gone for a relatively slick, professional sound. Perhaps they were taking this whole “band” thing seriously.
And then came Song, unexpectedly the last word from Lullaby but perhaps its best. While Stevens continues to croon his Poetry Writing 101 assignments rather than write real lyrics, the band overcomes his pretension. Both playful indie-poppers and studious chamber ensemble, Lullaby maps a course through ten songs, establishing and contrasting melodies, building acoustic walls of sound more akin to My Bloody Valentine than Mazzy Star. The band moves purposefully, with careful intent, even during slower, more reflective numbers, keeping a steady course while Stevens gets to the lyrical point. The album reaches its shimmering apex in the pairing of “Asleep on the Subway” and “Seizures,” as the music simply overtakes the album and Stevens’ voice drifts into a miasma of moaning cellos and stirring guitars.
After that, the members of Lullaby disappeared into other projects. Stevens joined Cursive in time for its third album and has reunited with A.J. and Mike Mogis (who will apparently never be jobless as a producer) periodically to perform and record as Mayday.