Midwest Dilemma is an Omaha band ranging from one to twenty-two people. In the past year, since I met Justin Lamoureux – the central figure and songwriter for Midwest Dilemma – on a blizzardy night in Des Moines that kept everyone from our show except the musicians, I have been able to see many different incarnations of his songs. Last March he visited the Ames Progressive with singer and clarinetist Liz Webb, and in April they returned with flautist Jackie Six. In May, at Omaha’s beautiful and acoustically exceptional venue, the Slowdown, I was able to watch the full assembly of twenty-two musicians render Justin’s songs with balance and skill. They displayed the quality and intimacy of Omaha’s music scene and Justin’s ability to craft a type of folk-symphony, arranging twenty-two parts without muddling the songs or overwhelming the listener.
The May show was also a CD release party for their album Timelines and Tragedies. This album is an historical document, a singing family genealogy through which Justin traces his roots back to Paris in 1662 and works up to his setting in Omaha in 2007. Most of the song titles include either a name, a place, or the occupation of the ancestor whose story he is recording. He also places a year beside the title, marking the relation of the song’s to himself in the present. The liner notes are inlaid with pictures of these people and symbols of their lives: a train, a house, a key. The cover art of the album shows a very distant Eiffel Tower with many different landscapes pasted on top of each other, and in the foreground is the solitary silhouette of a young boy holding a guitar lazily at his side.
The song “Montreal,” which begins the album, opens with Justin’s guitar picking a brooding pattern before being joined by a viola scratching on one note in quick repetition. A tuba and bass drum enter to make the sound of the ship creaking and heaving with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, which brings the first character to Montreal. Justin sings “leaving Paris for a wooden ship made to cross the ocean 5005 kilometers west.” The next song, “Francoise,” features the clarinet, flute and cello combining to make a large ambient noise and then moving in harmonies behind a viola and the story of an expatriated criminal making a new life in Canada. “Fur Trader” moves the family to the American Midwest, where they take root. There is then a sixty year leap to “The Great Depression,” an aching waltz whose chorus pleads, “Arthur you don’t have to sell/you don’t have to give up your land”; a plea that is still felt now in the Midwest, where the landscape is dotted with dilapidated farmhouses surrounded by vast acres of corn and soybeans.
Both his grandfather and father served in the military, during World War II and Vietnam respectively, and the songs “General’s Orderly” and “Good Samaritan” document their experiences. They also indicate the disillusionment felt by both soldiers after the wars, particularly that of his father. Halfway through “Good Samaritan,” a march with a constant drum roll and lilting clarinet, the song’s tempo doubles and Justin’s voice gains an echo as he sings, “Nineteen years old I was off to Vietnam with my fingers crossed.” It quickly slows back down and then Justin sings with a defiant snarl, “I returned home from foreign seas and faithless/not much attachment to the military or god above.” However, the song resolves in the marriage of his father and mother and the phrase “we live and we love and we believe,” which becomes an evident theme in the song “Timelines and Tragedies.” The chorus instructs, “Love’s like a freight train/tied to the rails/you go where it takes you/and that’s how love goes,” and the song ends with some of Justin’s family members singing out the melody together.
Three songs – “Renault,” “Sioux City” and “Omaha” – are about Justin himself. “Sioux City” contains a beautiful duet with the viola and clarinet and the lyrics denote restlessness and a lack of direction: “I’m not gonna hide it and I’m not gonna fight/spend my time drinking/I won’t sleep tonight.” On “Omaha” the rest of the musicians drop out and the song loses the glossiness that the other songs possess; it sounds as if this one was recorded in a bedroom and left to sound that way. The lyrics speak of dead ends and contradictions in his life, of working for a company that will only “burn me up young and throw me out old, alone, and full of regret,” and passing “monuments and official statues,” symbols that are only “something we claim to be fighting for.” It seems as though these were the frustrations that led him to look elsewhere, to his family, for meaning and direction rather than to the American Dream, which he dismisses in the final track “Damage is Done”: “Most of the day I spend running away and I run from the American Dream.”
The last track feels like a relinquishing, a recognition that people, as evidenced by his own story, are moved around mainly by larger forces: natural phenomena, war, need and chance, rather than their own driving desire for wealth or position or whatever that dream is supposed to be. He seems to find consolation in the simple conclusion his father came to, which he puts in French – the language of his ancestors – on vie et on aime et on croix. And on October 18th, through a series of accidents, choices, and coincidences Midwest Dilemma will be performing these songs at the Ames Progressive office where they will kick off their national tour of the album.