REVIEW: H.R. Gertner’s “Sink or Swim” is Vivid Imagery and Countrified Philosophy


Last year, in a review of H.R. Gertner’s Two Dimes for a Nickel, I called the Florida singer-songwriter’s dirtbag brand of folk poetry “Trailer Park Shakespeare.” In his newest release Sink or Swim, we see a gentler and more refined Gertner – one who isn’t singing about meth head ex-girlfriends or apologizing for waking up on the floor after a night of making mistakes.

Still, the aesthetic of southern life carries on in Sink or Swim as it has in Gertner’s previous releases. In “Jimmy Buffett on the Radio” he paints a warm picture of a beer-fueled winter in key west, whistling a happy tune while singing about descendants of Ernest Hemmingway’s cats peeing on descendants of Ernest Hemmingway’s plants.

It’s not always clear what Gertner’s songs are about. “Breakfast with a strange bird” takes us from a motel room to the assassination of JFK, then back to another motel room. What his songs lack in narrative, they make up for in vivid imagery and countrified philosophy. In “Cursed and Blessed,” he really shines here.

The diamonds turned back to coal

And the bees left their hives

There will be no honey no more

A sad sign of our times

But the truth is so simple

so easy to see

There’s not that much difference

Between you and me

Listeners of Gertner’s will recognize his trademark narrative jukes. He’ll set up a couplet and then not quite deliver it the way you expected – choosing to surprise listeners with a rhyme or punchline you weren’t quite expecting. “Sunset Up Ahead” illustrates this well.

It’s another lonely day in America for most of us.

Turn off the TV, and try not to cuss too much.

There’s a rawness to Gertner’s records that I believe goes hand in hand with the speed at which he produces them. Production is light – it’s mostly just a man and his percussive guitar playing, with occasional light harmonies and bass runs deep in the mix. I listen to them as folk music and poetry in it’s purest form – honest, unpolished, and true to its creator. In this regard, “Sink or Swim” is an excellent addition to Gertner’s already deep catalog.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from history,” Gertner sings, ” is it’s hard to learn from history.” That may be true – but if there’s one thing history tells us, it’s that Gertner will be back later this year with another collection of moving and sometimes funny slice-of-life songs about country life.

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