kaytea mcintosh / xo publicity
review on crawdaddy
by j. poet
We Both Was Young
Mark Mathis opens his fourth solo album with “Sharecropper Takes a Colored Wife.” The title clues you into the fact that this is a song about bygone times. A clattering banjo and a vocal processed to sound like it’s coming from the horn of an Edison cylinder add subtle drama to the tune’s archaic feel. When Mathis sings in his dry, vulnerable tenor—“Your skin was brown like the soil that I worked”—the poetic turn of phrase lets you know that this is not a folk song, but a contemporary work of art. Still, the delivery allows us to suspend belief and get into the heart and mind of the singer and his story. Then the band comes in with fiddle, stand up bass, rhythmic clapping, Jew’s harp, and backing vocals steeped in rich country harmonies to tell us of a marriage that’s spurned by the families of both bride and groom. There are ominous overtones to the story, but the music is sprightly and full of hope. The tune’s chorus, which is also a paraphrase of the album’s title—“She was young and I was young and we’re not afraid to live life to the fullest”—speaks of love’s desire to change the world, with an optimism that perhaps only the young and in love can feel. The song does everything a freshly composed folk song should do, inspiring and uplifting the soul with a fresh eye that blends American traditional music with today’s sounds to produce something new and timeless. Mathis follows up this solid performance with 10 more gems that drop rock, R&B, country, blues, and a hint of indie rock into a style that’s deeply rooted in the folk music and rich storytelling traditions of the southern United States.
Mathis deals with eternal values here, mainly the human need for transcendence through union with the beloved or god, although the religious impulses are implied rather than explicit. The production quality is up to date, but never calls attention to itself. It’s the only hint that these songs aren’t 10 or even 100 years old. On “In Love at 19”, for example, he captures all the wild exuberance and giddy joy of infatuation without referencing cars, cell phones, rock ‘n’ roll, wardrobe choices, or any other newfangled 21st century devices or customs. Nor does he mention any 20th century verbal clues, for that matter. He uses enduring images of heart and nature with a poet’s touch and a keen melodic sense to deliver finely etched portraits packed with barely restrained emotion. Like the best country writers of song and story, Mathis refrains from direct expression, but the passion simmering just beneath the surface gives his music an undeniable power.
“New Day” is a mystic country tune that brings to mind the subtle sound of ’50s Nashville with a gently strummed acoustic guitar, sparse Floyd Cramer- style honky tonk piano, and the merest hint of fiddle with a whispered vocal from Mathis that speaks of lost love with hints of death, resurrection, and the hope of eternal life. “Oh King” is a protest song, and although it’s cloaked in biblical language, it could easily apply to George W. and our current situation in Iraq. It’s a mid-tempo country rocker dominated by the cosmic lamentations of an aching pedal steel guitar and a shuffling backbeat. Mathis mourns for the souls of fighters involved in an unjust war with a vocal full of tearful resignation, wondering what kind of epiphany is necessary before men can come to their senses and seek forgiveness for the lives they’ve taken and the lies they’ve told to make it possible for such barbaric acts to take place. Mathis alternates the words “oh king” with “oh Cain,” a nice onomatopoetic touch that deepens the song’s impact.
“We Will Fall in Love” is a blues song given a swinging arrangement that places it somewhere between New Orleans and Kansas City in the early ’40s. A melancholy coronet drifts through the mix adding blue notes to Mathis’ insouciant vocal. He’s waving goodbye to an old girlfriend while he flirts with her replacement. It’s the kind of ironic juxtaposition of grief and hope that often marks love on the rebound, with the jaunty music making it sound more celebratory than cynical. Mathis is a clear-eyed romantic who leavens his love songs with a bracing touch of reality and his darker tales with rays of hope and sunshine. It’s a hard balance to achieve, but he pulls it off every time, the mark of a real craftsman.