The Minneapolis tunesmith digs his local graveyard - so much so, it inspired his otherwise lively third album.
Should we be worried about Jeremy Messersmith?
One had to wonder last week, when Minneapolis' favorite new singer/songwriter of the past half-decade spent a sunny morning showing off one of his favorite new places to take a walk: a graveyard.
Messersmith lives close to the absolute non-action at the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, a 157-year-old grassy oasis on the bustling corner of Lake Street and Cedar Avenue S. that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its residents include War of 1812 vets and prominent settlers and at least one character on Messersmith's latest and most deceptively poppy album, "The Reluctant Graveyard."
A muse of sorts for the new record, the cemetery is driven past daily by thousands of Minneapolis residents who pay it no mind. But Messersmith, 30, is not like most Minneapolis residents.
"You have to see this one over here," he said, excitedly approaching a tombstone that was itself entombed by a massive tree stump (the tree had grown around it). With the morbid tone of a metal musician, he concluded, "Makes you wonder what the tree-root systems are doing to the people under here."
That thought aside, all the cryptic thinking around Messersmith's new album has a simple explanation.
"It's the nearest green space to where I live," he said.
"It's like a park that nobody ever goes to, a good place to clear your head. I'd walk through here and work on a melody, or if I needed to break out of a creative rut."
The songs about death and caskets and tombstones -- a concept he admits "makes absolutely zero sense commercially" -- also make better sense when you realize it completes a trilogy of albums.
"The Alcatraz Kid," his 2006 debut, was all about youth and escapism (themes tied to outgrowing his conservative Christian upbringing). The Dan Wilson-produced follow-up record, "The Silver City," had more of a middle-aged vibe with songs about moving into the big city, commuting on mass transit and working in cubicles (also semi-autobiographical).
"The Reluctant Graveyard," on tap for a release party Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center, obviously brings the trilogy up to life's end. Messersmith is quick to clarify, "It's not like I have any kind of suicidal thoughts." But he does still view it as a personal record.
"It's something we all face," he said. "We've all had friends who died. We've all thought, 'Should I be afraid of death?' It was something I was thinking about quite a bit."
The songs all face death in one way or another. The soft and English-folky "Toussaint Grey, First in Life and Death," is named after one of the local cemetery's best-known residents, the first African-American believed to be born in Minneapolis (see sidebar). "Violet," the album's soaring first single, features an abused woman who contemplates violence. The rollicking "Dillinger Eyes" stars a modern-day bank-robber who gets gunned down. "Deathbed Salesman" is about a casket seller. The light closing ditty "Tomorrow" might well be the sweetest-sounding reminder that today could be your last.
Despite its dark themes, "The Reluctant Graveyard" is a surprisingly upbeat, melodic, sunny album.
Messersmith was already known for having one of the most charming new pop voices in town -- comparisons to indie-pop star Sufjan Stevens abound -- but this one is by far the bubbliest-sounding of the bunch. All the write-ups on this record will likely lead to Beatles references, and this time he says the comparisons are no mistake.
"Because the songs are so dark, I thought it would be a good idea to sugarcoat them," he recalled. "I also wanted something that sounded more universal, and not 'indie quirky.' It doesn't get any more universal than the Beatles."
Messersmith went so far as to buy a Paul McCartney-style Hofner bass for the sessions, now his main instrument of choice. He also bought the ridiculously bulky, $100 book "Recording the Beatles," which details the making of all their songs. He put together a poppy new band, too, featuring drummer/keyboardist/co-producer Andy Thompson, cellist/keyboardist Dan Lawonn and local music vet Brian Tighe on guitar.
Messersmith said he recruited Tighe specifically for the fuzzy, warm '60s pop-rock sound he has crafted in his bands the Owls and the Hang-Ups.
Tighe, for one, wasn't thrown by the idea of playing such upbeat sounds with such downbeat lyrics.
"Somehow, it all makes sense when you hear the songs," he said with a laugh. "I was really impressed with the way Jeremy was able to come up with a concept and really stick to it and keep it fun and natural. Inspiration just seems to keep coming to him."
No kidding. As we strolled the cemetery last week, he stopped to contemplate a large area conspicuously devoid of headstones. "It's probably where they piled all the poor people who couldn't afford marked graves," he guessed.
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The Honeydogs return to the First Ave main room Saturday with a first-ever anthology in tow. "Chasing the Sun: The Best of the Honeydogs" features 35 songs spread over two CDs, starting with "Seen a Ghost," "I Miss You" and other gems from the band's late-'90s run on Mercury Records to its self-released (and arguably best stuff) of recent years, including "10,000 Years" and "Good Fight."
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A lot of bands are incorporating orchestral strings into their indie-rock nowadays, but nobody else does it in the quirky yet dramatic way of Bella Koshka. Minneapolis' chamber-gypsy-alt-rock quintet -- led by violinist Hilary Davis and singer Laura Boland -- performs Friday at Bedlam Theater to tout its long-in-the-works, Darren Jackson-produced second album, "Deception Island." Named after a research outpost in Antarctica plagued with volcanic eruptions, the album uses the fire/ice theme to great effect, weaving between serene and elegant to explosive and über-moody rock, like a melding of Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Dresden Dolls. The Alpha Centauri opens the show (10 p.m., $10).Random mix
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Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658