It’s hard to interpret the playfully exotic cover art of Chuck LeMonds’ eighth record, titled simply LeMonds. A cartoon frog, who looks to be a relative of Michigan J. Frog sans top hat, lounges in the coils of a threatening-looking king cobra, hood extended, tongue flickering. While it seems an odd choice for a folk record, it seems as though it must mean something. Add to this the fact that the Eau Claire native has been living in Austria for two decades and recorded most of the vocals for this record in the tower of a castle built in the 1400s, and that the featured guitarist Arkadiy Yushin is a Belarus native who now lives in St. Paul and you start to expect something really out of the ordinary. Alas, LeMonds is just your standard, expertly recorded folk record featuring the local talents of Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines.
In fact, the biggest surprise is the very American comedy/irony of “Life Insurance with the NRA.” Whereas the rest of the record plays it safe in folky territory, all jangly guitars and perfect harmonies, “Life Insurance” is an unexpectedly witty interlude. After finding the ad in the back of a magazine (American Rifleman, no doubt) he tells us, “I bought life insurance from the NRA in case I show up DOA. I’ll have some money to leave my kids and that’s important to me.” It’s hard to know whether he’s serious when he claims that “this could be the piece of the puzzle that I’ve been looking for.” After all, banking on dying from a gunshot wound to provide for your family sounds like a strange sort of lottery. Then again, that may be exactly what makes this song so intriguing.
After that, the rest of the record, though very pretty, seems a bit pedestrian. LeMonds falls into the Chris Smither/Greg Brown/Peter Mulvey category of folk singers, but his songs don’t quite have the charm of those songwriters. He lacks Smither’s passion, Brown’s heart and Mulvey’s knowing wink. The playful lilt of “Golda’s Ukulele” succeeds mainly on the sweet infectiousness of the chorus, “When I hear the ukulele play you’re not far away, when I hear the ukulele play it’s like old time music on the radio.” The likeability of such sentiments overcomes the often-awkward lyrics of the verses, like opening line, “I gave you a ukulele to love like I love you.” And I may be wrong, but I don’t hear a ukulele in this song, which seems an oversight. “Wagon Full of Devils” is another lovely song that doesn’t really go anywhere, though the multi-part harmony vocals and crisp, layered guitar sound are some of the best on the record.
In the end, LeMonds is a pretty record that I just can’t quite love, though I think we can be friends, as long as the cobra stays home.