If you’ve never heard of Ike Reilly, it’s not because he’s some boutique indie rocker who prizes obscurity over record sales. In an alternate reality, one where Al Gore wins in Florida, or where the 9/11 hijackers fail in their missions, Ike Reilly is a star. Kids have posters of Ike Reilly on their dorm room walls in that dimension. Ike Reilly wrote the song that autoplays on the website for universal Medicare coverage in this imaginary place, and sure autoplay is annoying, but goddamn, it’s a catchy-ass song.
Of course, this place never happened and Ike Reilly and his group, The Ike Reilly Assassination, remain pretty damned obscure. And maybe you’re okay with not having that liberal fantasy come true. Maybe you believe George W. Bush’s tenure is incorrectly maligned, his electoral victory unassailable. Maybe you think me even whispering 9/11 in a discussion of socialist folk-singers is tantamount to blasphemy. I understand your misgivings. SIKE. Dubya can get fucked.
It’s impossible, though, to look at Ike Reilly’s career and not believe that his music, more specifically how the music was received by the music industry and the listening public, wasn’t affected in some large part by the cultural and political trends of time. Investigating Reilly’s career through a lens that compares it to the wildly popular acts of the early aughts is probably the quickest way to get there on my tattered musical road-map.
The two most appropriate artists to place next to Ike, both in terms of time-frame and musical aesthetic, are Ryan Adams and Eminem. I compare Reilly to these two, not because he’s similar to either, but because he operates in both the folk-rock, singer-songwriter milieu and simultaneously in the mode of the disaffected white rapper, while standing in stark relief to two of the most successful purveyors of these genres from 2000 - 2004.
I could go long on this, unpacking comparisons, droning on endlessly or elucidating with sparkling detail, depending on your point-of-view. Instead, here is a timeline that illustrates just how and where Ike Reilly and The IRA fall into the continuum of music from the time period in question, and why the stars just could not have aligned in greater opposition to this man’s recording career.
September 11, 2000 - The Marshall Mathers LP is released. The white rapper has never been in greater ascendancy. Self-pity and hate-your-mom-and-dad, specifically your mom and dad, replace “Fight the power” and “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” once and for all in hip-hop. Yay.
July 2001 - Ike Reilly releases Salesman and Racists, an album title that probably sums up record company executives as succinctly as anything ever. With songs titled “Commie Drives a Nova,” and “Hip-Hop Thighs,” the album combines rock, folk-rap, and drum machine samples in a middle fingered sendoff to the Clinton era, and a fuck-you-harder welcome to Dubya.
September 11, 2001 - Yeah.
September 24, 2001 - Ryan Adams’ Gold is released. “New York, New York” becomes a sweet and contentless love song to the city middle-America hated before, and would hate again within the decade. The song, which I do actually enjoy, did not win a grammy that year for best male rock performance. Lenny fucking Kravitz won for “Dig In.” This barf tastes awful.
October 2002 - Eminem releases “Lose Yourself,” as the lead single to promote 8-Mile. America’s young men and women, white, black, and brown, have a carpe-diem-because-the-old-heads-stole-your-tomorrow anthem to accompany their impending incursions into Middle-Eastern nations. Songs that ask you live an examined life, to question the swirl of smarm and disingenuous war-mongering are not necessarily selling right now.
2002-2003 - Ike Reilly is stuck in a record company quagmire. God, record companies are the worst. Also, this happened.
2004 - The Ike Reilly Assassination release Sparkle in the Finish, featuring songs like “It’s Alright to Die,” “The Ex-Americans,” and “Holiday in New York.” In the same year, 2004, Eminem wins a grammy for “Lose Yourself” much more than a year after the song’s original release date. Nobody found themselves in 16 months?
In the decade since, Ike has recorded several other great albums and has toured extensively, usually playing small but venerable live-music institutions. Of late, his touring schedule has been geographically limited and infrequent, which is too bad, given just how goddamn good his live show is. His sound has turned ever-increasingly back to the street-folk style, a sound that suits him perfectly when he plays at union rallies and statehouse sit-ins, as he’s done in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and numerous other places where workers have occasionally stood up to corporate and government thugs.
Change a few things—significant, earth-shifting things—but just one or two moments in time, and Ike Reilly is the guy who is rapping to us on the radio about how instead of losing ourselves, we ought to find a picket sign and an axe-handle and take a little bit of the gold for ourselves. You ever get that itch, Ike is still your guy.
Established: The Ike Reilly Assassination - 2000, Chicago, Illinois.
Genre(s): Folk, Rock, Folk-Rap, Hip-Hop
2000 - Salesmen and Racists
2004 - Sparkle in the Finish
2005 - Junkie Faithful
2007 - We Belong to the Staggering Evening
2008 - Poison the Hit Parade
2009 - Hard-Luck Stories
It’s Alright to Die
22 Hours of Darkness
Commie Drives a Nova
8 More Days Till the Fourth of July
I Don’t Want What You Got (Goin’ On)
Poison the Hit Parade
War on The Terror and The Drugs (w/ Shooter Jennings) -
If you’re in Chicago, go see Ike Reilly this Saturday at the Double Door. It will be better than whatever else you’re doing.