Between 2010 and 2011, Shawn Rosenblatt, who records as Netherfriends, traveled solo to all 50 states, forcing himself to write and demo a new song within the state lines. Take that, Sufjan. The Chicagoan gathered not only a fair amount of press for the gimmick, but also a war chest of material. The one-man pop band’s new album, Middle America, celebrates the Midwest with luxuriant lo-fi sounds that seem alien to the cornfields of Nebraska and lyrics too erudite for a South Dakota state fair.
Rosenblatt hasn’t had a home since he gave up his Bucktown flat in 2010, but his melancholy creativity thrives on loneliness. In “Kalamazoo, MI,” he softly sings, “I hope we die at the same time.” So the material has little connection to the titular towns, not that we doubt that “everybody wants to have a good time” in “Bloomington, IN.” Yet with its synths and diary-like structure, the record captures the big skies and the genuineness of the heartland. And “Chicago, IL” appropriately has power-pop hooks.
Process matters to Rosenblatt. He stands by himself onstage as well, armed with a guitar and keyboard and a good number of dance moves. The true test of an artist with a gimmick is the ability to move past the gimmick, as Netherfriends will be forced to do after Sun Belt or whatever comes next. The prolific 25-year-old is enough of a student of pop (he gave away an album of Harry Nilsson covers) to pull it off. Or he could just rack up the frequent flyer miles and hit all 200-plus countries. Can’t wait to hear “Djibouti.”