Erik Koskinen Delivers “American Music” With Star-Studded Band on ‘Burning the Deal’ (ALBUM REVIEW))

The last time this writer heard an artist describe his music as “American Music” was the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Btown who shunned the blues label people ascribed to him. Now we have Minnesota folk-rocker Erik Koskinen taking issue with the label “Americana,” describing his music instead as “all American roots music.” He expounds, “It’s not Americana music. I learned how to play blues music, I learned how to play country music, and how to play folk, bluegrass, jazz, whatever. I learned how to play American music.” So, on Burning the Deal you will hear echoes of Hank Williams, J.J. Cale, Chuck Berry, or maybe even John Lee Hooker, to name just a few. However, it goes much deeper than that. In the vein of his close friend, Jeffrey Foucault, Koskinen’s songs are stripped-down, breathe the Midwestern air, paint character portraits, and have a deceptively haunting quality.

Certainly, a good part of this is in the songwriting but it also owes to the quality of those he recruited, as talented a foursome as you’ll find in roots music. The now legendary Greg Leisz (Dave Alvin, Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams) plays pedal steel, lap steel and mandolin. Drummer Jay Bellarose and bassist Jennifer Condos (Marc Cohn, Ray LaMontagne) are highly demanded session players. Co-producer Bernie Larsen, The L.A. veteran who has played with a staggering number of artists ranging from Jackson Browne, Melissa Etheridge to Public Enemy, handles both guitars and keys. Koskinen, versatile in his own right, plays guitar and sings when fronting these bandmates but handles all instruments himself on two tracks. He already played guitar, clarinet and oboe but Larsen, who’d played with Ry Cooder and with David Linley’s El Rayo-X, helped Kostinen expand his palette, to put textures around the essence of the song and avoid excess.

You may have already seen the “Big Plane” video starring Amelia Fleetwood (daughter of Mick). Koskinen wrote the song while touring in Europe, longing to get home and be with his love. It features terrific pedal steel from Leisz, as do several others. While it may be the most accessible and memorable track, there are many other standouts. The opening “Gun” has that haunting quality we might associate with artists like Ray Bonneville, as the protagonist becomes so desperate, that he commits a serious act, for which he pays severe consequences. It is loosely based on the story of a high school acquaintance whose third strike sent him to prison for life. Koskinen adds that the character in “Down in the Factory” – “where they manufacture jealousy, apathy, gluttony and anxiety—could be that guy’s brother.” Instrumentation like the minor key droning underneath Leisz’s mandolin in that latter of the intersection of gutty blues and second-line rhythms in “Sell Out” add to the dark moody vibe. And then there are lines like this in “Crazy” – “it’s easy going crazy but it’s hard staying sane enough.”

”Losers Like You and Me” also simmers with atmospheric blues as Leisz’s steel notes add to the contemplative tone of the album’s most fully realized track. Interestingly, he has in line in the tune, “you had the urge for goin’.” Pulling no punches, Koskinen admits to stealing it directly from Tom Rush. Similarly, though not as directly, “Darlin’” owes to Chuck Berry. (“plays his guitar like ringing a bell”) The slow, country Hank Williams influence in felt in “Ordinary Fool,” another standout. The spare “Crazy” and back porch blues “Pony to Ride” are where Koskinen plays alone.

As captured in that first paragraph quote, Koskinen’s influences run deep. He was born in Colorado to a mother from Wichita Falls, TX, and a dad from Helsinki, Finland. His major influence growing up, primarily through his dad was singing cowboys, inspired by the Gene Autry and Roy Rogers TV shows, and later through music festivals. Like his parents, Koskinen’s lead a nomadic existence from New York state to Michigan and to Minneapolis, where he finally found a group of musicians that played patiently and shared his vision, and finally to rural Minnesota, where he currently resides on a farm with his girlfriend. He’s also spent time in Nashville and California, seeking his musical muse. Along the way, through construction work and other jobs, he’s been a keen observer of small towns and rural life. His music reflects that and more.

Koskinen’s developed his unique style, that he loosely calls “American music.” Call it what you want. It’s deeply engaging.

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