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September 7, 2008
Sacramento Single: Of Great and Mortal Men

OfGREATMEN.JPG

]t's nearly impossible to write about politics without being political.

Christian Kiefer admits that much is true.

But still, the Rocklin-based musician says, he and friends Jefferson Pitcher and Matthew Gerken aimed to "minimize the rants and raves" on their new project, the three-CD, all original set "Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs For 43 Presidencies." (Standard Recordings, $30).

"We tried to present songs that would have longer legs than our current political concerns," Kiefer says of the all-original tunes.
"We didn't want this to be politically offensive - it's too easy to take cheap shots."

The project was conceived in 2006 when Pitcher, a former Davis resident now living in New York, decided to take the February Album Writing Month challenge. The annual event was launched in 2004 by a musician who was inspired by November's better-known National Novel Writing Month exercise.

The Rocklin-based Kiefer jokingly said he'd join in, too - by writing sequels to Pitcher's songs. That was before he even knew the subject matter but once he did, Kiefer says, he was amused and intrigued.

The idea blossomed further after the two invited Sacramento bassist Gerken to join them. The three split up songwriting duties, each taking on 14 former chiefs-of-state and then collaborating together on the 43rd song, George W. Bush's "Through the Night."

Throughout, the task proved daunting, Kiefer says, as they tried to layer their songs with political, historical and cultural context.

"Some of the lesser-known presidents were difficult to write about (and) I found myself thinking I should say something concrete about them," Kiefer says.

"Everyone knows George Washington so you can be quirky with his story - you can't do that with Millard Fillmore," he says. "I wanted to teach people something."

While the songs were written in a month, it took the next year-and-a-half to polish the lyrics and fill in the musical gaps.

To help complete the songs, Kiefer, Pitcher and Gerken called on friends such as Sacramento musicians Vince DiFiore, Matt McCord and John Gutenberger. They also corralled a who's who of nationally known indie musicians, including Rosie Thomas, Bill Callahan and Low's Alan Sparhawk.

The Mortal Men project will continue, past the Nov. 4 election, with a song for the 44th president, either John McCain or Barack Obama. And, yes, again, the songwriters will strive to write something that straddles the party line.

For Gerken, it's the only way to ensure their songs will endure.
"(These songs) have to place the presidencies in historical context," he says. "They have to make interesting commentaries that could be challenging and maybe critical - but not whining."

Of Great and Mortal Men

Song: "Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus"CQ

Style: Brooding, surreal political pop

Behind the song: "This was the first song I wrote and it came together very quickly," Kiefer says of the album's inaugural track about George Washington.
"The song is basically about George having teeth that are not made of wood but actually carved from hippopotamus teeth - which is actually the truth. I learned that in my research.
"It's about how (Washington) basically lived a lie (about his teeth) his entire life and, at the end of his life, he had these nightmares about the hippopotamus (coming) back for the teeth."
It was fun to play around with the Washington mythology, Kiefer says.
"For some reason it really came together effortlessly," he says, laughing. "If it hadn't been so easy to write, I might not have gone on with the rest of the project."

See them: Saturday9/13 at the Fox & Goose (1001 R St, Sacramento).CQ The 21-and-over show starts at 9 p.m. and is $3 at the door.
On the Web: www.43presidencies.com.CQ

Listen to "Washington Dreams of the Hippopotomus" here:



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