Let me start off by saying, this album is a sleeper. At first listen, it strikes you as an uncomplicated collection of slightly quirky songs... until you really start to hear the lyrics. Then the deception is over, and you realize that what youʼre listening to. If youʼre clever enough to grab the physical CD, what you’re holding in your hands is something special: an encapsulation of thought, feeling, and circumstance that speaks directly to you. Derek Senn writes songs you can relate to. They're lyrically driven songs that capture the ups and downs of everyday life in ways that are at times humorous, and other times are piercingly sorrowful in a way that hits so close to home, youʼre astonished to be hearing someone other than yourself giving voice to those thoughts. The music on each track is carefully constructed to bring out the feel of each song without being overwhelming -- it provides a rich depth to the stories being told.
The story behind The Technological Breakthrough, and Derek Senn himself, is pretty cool. Senn got serious with music around 2000 while visiting a friend in Silver City, New Mexico. His friend tended bar in a local saloon and Derek spent a full shift at the bar with his friend. It just so happened that this particular night was an open mic night, and a good one at that. So good, Derek wanted to jump up there as well, but he didnʼt know any full songs. At that point in time he decided to start writing so that heʼd be prepared if ever he found himself at an open mic night again. He decided he would try to record every two years for the next 20 years. (Creating for the sake of creation is a wonderful thing.) So, Senn bought himself a digital 8-track recorder and started his own lo-fi thing -- at first in his bedroom, and then in his basement. (For the in-depth version of the story, I encourage you to check out the bio on his website.)
In January of this year, Senn found himself with a catalog of new songs and the desire to step out of lo-fi. He contacted John Vanderslice from Tiny Telephone Recording, and after some quick correspondence, decided it was the right fit. So from April 12 to April 21, 2014, with the assistance of Vanderslice, assisstant engineer Laurence Wasser, session drummer Jason Slota, Rob Shelton providing keys, and Jon Monahan adding additional acoustic, electric, and bass guitar, the tracks to The Technological Breakthrough were laid down on 1/2” analog tape.
One of the really cool things about this CD is the 20-page booklet that comes with it. Senn includes an essay on the entire process, along with lyrics and a few pictures. I have to be honest, reading about the process and what went into it, the light-hearted comment about the added credit card debt to get the tapes made into a 1000 CDs (and understanding what itʼs like to extend yourself for your passion)... I sat there holding the finished product in my hand, feeling special and privileged that we received one of these -- the fruit of someoneʼs passionate and creative labor for review instead of a download code. Thanks, Derek.
“The Technological Breakthrough” is perhaps the strongest song on the album. At face value, itʼs about a vacation spent away from work and electronics. But, as you listen, you realize itʼs about reconnecting and regaining what becomes lost in the day-to-day shuffle and hustle of life. One of my favorite lines perfectly captures the burden of the ordinary subduing the yearning for passion: “For 50 weeks Iʼm gonna wear my monkey suit, in order to canoe the other two.” Brilliant writing. Vandersliceʼs studio cast pulls out all the stops on this one and Sennʼs melody is classic. This is a hard track not to love.
Iʼm loving track two, “Bohemian Girl,” more and more every time I hear it. I think this is where the hook set, so to speak, on my first listen through the album. Itʼs the first encounter with a theme that becomes familiar: losing better, simpler, and more fulfilled selves to the demands of day-to-day life. Sennʼs unique, straightforward writing grabs you immediately and Monahanʼs electric accompaniment to Sennʼs acoustic crafts a beautifully done sad song that reminds you that you lost something along the way.
“The Shit We Keep” is good on so many levels, itʼs ridiculous. It's a fun parody of the compulsion to accumulate stuff, and if you spend enough time around Sennʼs work, youʼll get the suspicion that itʼs probably a bit of a dig at modern living. Sennʼs lyrical magicianship is on full display and his use of harmonica and acoustic guitar, along with Monahanʼs acoustic, electric, and bass guitars, Vandersliceʼs electric guitar and synthesizer, and Slota’s drums, triangle, and “all things shakable,” cement this as a head-bobbing, foot-tapping, hell of a good time.
Derek Senn is a master at capturing the everyday in the form of a good sad song. He does what he does because itʼs what he loves to do. Songwriters like Senn make you feel like youʼve got a friend somewhere who knows what youʼre going through. Be a good friend and support him by buying his music and spreading the word. Treat yourself on this one: skip the digital stuff and go straight for the physical product -- experience that realization that youʼre holding something special in your hand.