Tom Mank and Sera Smolen are so far beyond the mainstream, it's scary. They are acoustic music's Igor Stravinsky in a world of Brahms and Schumanns. I mean, Brahms and Schumann are great, but Stravinsky— man, that's adventure! So it is with Mank and Smolen, at least as presented in Where the Sun Meets the Blue, an album of amazing musical styles. Sure, the overlying style is folk and jazz with a bit of Smolenized-classical thrown in on the side, but that does not even begin to describe what goes on on this album. And trust me when I say that the meager attempt I make here will fall sadly short.
Mank approaches this album like a modern beatnik, picking subjects on the edge and presenting them with unerring touch. For instance, Off-Beat Rhyme. A seemingly simple look at an unrequited love of sorts, he creeps into the nebulous shadows of emotional turmoil, yet with a light and practical air brought off by his superb guitar and the absolutely laughably excellent cello of Sera Smolen. Throw in a magnificent performance, magically understated of course, by Amy Merrill on viola and some otherworldly voice by producer Julie Last and the stage is set. A great first chapter and the good news is that it just gets better.
If you didn't live through the beginnings of the Civil Rights struggle, you might not know about the riots in Baltimore in the early sixties. It is hard to forget: sizzling temperatures, rising tensions, minorities packed into inadequate housing (forget inadequate—some of it was downright uninhabitable). In short, the right ingredients for exactly what happened—a disaster of stunning proportions. Keep Crossing That Line is a Mank remembrance of one of America's most shameful incidents and at the same time a musical memorial to the Civil Rights movement. Solid bass lays the tone (actually, it is Sera Smolen's cello—how she gets it to emulate an upright bass is beyond me, but wow), Mank's guitar is minor chord magic and then there is Kirsti Gholson and Julie Last. Their voices combine with light hand claps to push this way over the top.
An aside: I discovered Kirsti Gholson just this past year, uncovering her very impressive self-titled solo CD (circa 2000) by fluke (I have since learned that Last also has a solo album from years past—how do these things get past me?). Such flukes make music fun, let me tell you, and I have looked for her since, thus stumbling upon Prana, a Baird Hersey-led vocal group of, ahem, throat singers and chanters (Check it out. It is fascinating.), another of whom is, not surprisingly, Julie Last. To find Last and Gholson on an album of this stature proves that occasionally the stars do align. Their work here is brilliant, though confined, and leaves me salivating for more.
Things slow down with the melodic title track, ethereal beauty taking over for a minute amongst the jazzy folkiness. A bit quieter, it utilizes the clear tones of Pam Daley whose voice is perfect match for Mank's deeper emotional textures.
When it comes to the outer edges of folk and jazz, it never hurts to bring in the right percussion, or so it seems, and Mank calls upon Edward Biko Smith to lighten things up a little on See What the Night Brings. Smith's congas and the dissonant voices of Last and Gholson help push this into jazzville, if you will, and once again Smolen and Merrill rise to the task. I have no idea what their backgrounds are, but man, they can play!
Attention to detail at times is the difference between good and great and Mank/Smolen/Last nail it on Meet Me On the Mountain. From Smolen's sliding cello/bass and use of bundt pan and and Torrens bell (that's right, I said bundt pan) to Mank's unique finger-picking on the acoustic to Mank and Last's vocal excellence, this is something else. Laid back, almost siesta-like, it breaks the mold. If the devil is in the details, this is downright devilish.
Smolen takes the cello for a short solo ride with her self-penned Sarkori next, a jazz- and classical-influenced recital more than worth hearing and perfectly sequenced here, setting up the more open and (acoustically) brash Saint Paul Street. Smolen's cello is more percussive on this track than previously and it fits flawlessly with the dual dissonance of Mank and Last and the almost psychedelic fuzzed out guitar of Michael Veitch, whose reverb and tremolo will push many a guitarists' buttons. It is unexpected and most welcome.
The beginning of Where's That Train captures audience applause way in the background and one has to wonder if this or portions of it were not recorded live. If so, Mank and Smolen just jumped to the top of my "must see" list. To be honest, to this point the album has me convinced that these two are truly out there and I don't mean that negatively. These guys are in territory few have covered, at least not this well. Mank and Smolen do more with a simple acoustic guitar and cello than some chamber orchestras or jazz ensembles and when you add Last and Gholson… Ah, the track isn't live. It uses an intro and outro by one Michael Jay. Still, it could easily have been.
It is a shame you have to end an album as good as this one, but Mank does it professionally. Sounding more folk than on any track heretofore, he steps into the surreal. Quiet, melodious and ethereal, Lit By the Moon whispers its way out, helped along by Mank, Smolen, Gholson and Last, of course, but especially by the eerie lap steel of one Josh Roy Brown. An entrancing end.
Let me correct an omission, of sorts. Up to this point, I have not really talked in terms of expertise. After having listened to this album numerous times, I am of the mind that Tom Mank and Sera Smolen are easily Grammy material. They are expert at their craft, but more than that, they develop it. At their level, I am not at all sure that it is a craft but art. Regardless, I know one thing. There can't be a gig they play where a large percentage of their audience is not comprised of fellow musicians. That, my friends, is a given, and it speaks volumes.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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