George Bailey Makes Good

by Nathan Hall

“Lucy, oh Lucy, I can’t stand to see you ache/it just makes my poor heart break

“Lucy, oh Lucy, from my eyes the teardrops fall/they don’t understand at all.”


Penning heartfelt love songs about your dead cat and being the voice of the common man is not nearly as easy as it appears. Minnesota State Legislature worker by day and Cultivators front man by night, roots pop singer-songwriter Dan Israel recently released his fourth full-length album, Cedar Lake. Armed only with a four-track recorder, an acoustic guitar, and an acerbic wit vaguely reminiscent of Elvis Costello, Israel encapsulates the working man’s plight.

His heartfelt songs have gotten compared him to everyone from Paul Westerberg to the Jayhawks and even Neil Young.

“Yeah, I get ‘dark heartland folk’ a lot too,” Israel says. Putting me in the same league as old Wilco or Tom Petty or George Harrison is fine with me. The label I despise the most is alt-country, as it’s so restrictive,” he says.

Israel says he doesn’t really worry whether or not “dark heartland folk,” or whatever you want to call it, fit in today’s music industry.

“I really think genres and labels are a burden, more than anything else. I remember not long ago when rock wasn’t quite so segmented. Over time, it’s become increasingly polarized and stratified, and this of course guarantees that no one will ever be able to cross over to other audiences,” he says. “I don’t like making music for cliques, I’m totally not down with this whole elitism thing,” Israel says.

Israel was one of a lucky few Minneapolis musicians who were invited to play at the coveted South By Southwest Music Conference in Texas this past spring.

“It was really fun, partly because I used to live in Austin at one point,” he says. “I’ve applied for about 10 years now and finally got on, I’m still sort of confused by the selection process even now.” Israel’s songwriting is marked by a gift for playful wordplay rarely seen in the local scene, or any scene for that matter.

“I don’t try and outwit my audience, but I’m also not above using a bad pun or three as well,” he says.

Israel has recorded as both the Cultivators and Dan Israel, which may confuse some of his fans as far as what to call him.

“I like having the vibe of a real band, more than anything else. I mean, I’m definitely the leader and head songwriter for the Cultivators but I’ve also got my own solo stuff,” he said. “I think most of the songs I write work well in both rock and solo acoustic format and so almost all of the tunes are played both live as a band and then with just me,” Israel says.

Israel cites an eclectic array of influences for inspiring his musical sensibilities.

“I listen to a lot of Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and Lucinda Williams. Johnny Cash is great, obviously. I listen to a lot of country and pop, really. Big Star, the Byrds, and World Party,” he says. “This may sound really bizarre but I was also really into punk growing up the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash.”

Cedar Lake‘s standout track is “George Bailey,” an allegory for the Twins battle against the evil Carl Pohlad, metaphorically tied to the 1946 Capra classic film It’s A Wonderful Life. Both “Phone Call” and “Comin’ Round” focus on stories surrounding the aftermath of 9-11’s effect on the general public, both factual and fictional.

“The song ‘Heavy’ is about depression mainly. But it’s also about remaining optimistic despite what mainstream society hands out to us day in and day out,” he says. “It’s funny, I want to talk about my lyrics but I don’t want to talk about all my lyrics, you know? I don’t want to alienate people; my fans obviously may disagree with me on some of these issues,” Israel says.

The problem with his no-nonsense approach is that writers struggle with an angle in which to frame a feature.

“I’d rather just talk about my lyrics and influences, if that’s ok with you,” Israel says.

Done and done.

Dan Israel plays a 21+ show Thursday at the Turf Club (1601 University Ave. W., St. Paul, (651) 647-0486) at 9 pm.