Friday, June 28, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1274: Mandolin Orange

All hail the the four-day weekend! I’ve started the weekend right last night with a pleasant dinner out with better half, and now I face a lazy day with a few chores and errands, but plenty of time to accomplish both. Before I do either, let’s delve into the world of music, shall we?

Disc 1274 is… Tides of a Teardrop/Sing and Play Traditionals
Artist: Mandolin Orange

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? A somber and indistinct painting of a woman down at a pier. If I were high-cultured and genteel I might tell you this art is not to my tastes, but since I’m a blue-collar boy I’ll just say I don’t like it.

How I Came to Know It: I have been a fan of Mandolin Orange since 2016 when I discovered them through their five-star album “Blindfaller” (reviewed back at Disc 1064). I had only heard a couple of tracks off this new release but decided to take a chance given how great their previous two records had been.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Mandolin Orange albums. One of them has to be last, and it turns out it is this one so…#3. Still a bronze medal at the Olympics.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Tides of a Teardrop” is a subtle record, revealing itself slowly over multiple listens. I never experienced the wow factor that “Blindfaller” or “Such Jubilee” caused, but it was sneaky good.

“Tides of a Teardrop” demonstrates high end production values (which I like) and a bigger, rounder sound than previously. There are places where they pull in an old school country vibe as well and “Lonely All the Time” sounded so much like Hank Williams that I had to look twice at the liner notes before I believe it was a Mandolin Orange original (it is). Writing songs that sound timeless is a skill that few hold, and which band-member Andrew Marlin has long mastered.

This country sound was a welcome added dimension and gave the record more range and variety, although there were times, such as near the end of “Golden Embers” where the bass audio levels are a tick too high. Mandolin Orange are a band that plays very light, and any thump in that environment is even more jarring. This is not to take anything away from bassist Clint Mulligan, who is a gifted musician and when situated at the right place in the mix gives a great foundation for each song.

Atop that foundation, the talent of Marlin (mandolin, guitar, vocals) and Emily Frantz (guitar, fiddle, vocals) has not diminished in the slightest. These are two of the finest musicians in this or any genre, and they are equally adept at every instrument they pick up. Marlin has a laid-back tone to his voice that ambles its heart worn way through each song, and Frantz has a subtle seventies crooner vibe tucked into the corners of her folksy delivery.

Because of this surfeit of talent, I begrudged some of that aforementioned production. I wanted things a little starker and stripped down so I could appreciate all that great musicianship. For this reason, songs like “Like You Used To” which is crisp and full of bluegrass jump appealed to me all the more, standing out as they did against a broader set of stylistic options.

“Mother Deer” is a song about a deer alternately scampering about a field of clover or lying down by a country road. It is supposed to be a gentle pastoral, but I found it a little too…dear. If it’s a metaphor about Emily Frantz (her and Marlin recently had a child) then it is a strained metaphor and the overly cute play on words doesn’t help.

Much better in the nature metaphor catalogue is “The Wolves,” which has an insistent energy and some killer transitions from electric guitar licks to mandolin and back again, romantically referencing mother Emily to boot. And if you want a pretty pastoral, “Late September” will give you the same fix with a better song.

My copy of this record is the “deluxe edition” and included an EP of four traditional songs. Whether it is the source material or a conscious effort in production, these songs are played in the stripped-down way I had been longing for, and sound amazing. Standouts are the tragic romance of “Little Margaret” about a woman who dies and comes back to haunt a man who chose another woman over her. It is delightfully creepy and apparently dates back to the 17th century.

Little Dagger” is also solid, a tale of a girl who is guarded by her over-protective mother, who sleeps with a silver dagger to ward off suitors. Joan Baez did a killer version of it in the sixties (look it up), and Emily Frantz is also more than up to the task. The song sounds surprisingly like “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” although in the former we have a warning about a psychotic mother, and in the latter it’s the rakish boy who comes calling that is the real problem.

Even with the additional songs the total for both albums remains a tasteful 14 tracks and 55 minutes and I recommend the extended version if you have the option. This record is a worthy entry into Mandolin Orange’s impressive body of work and while I loved it less than previous records, it is still good and left me excited about what they’ll do next.

Best tracks: The Wolves, Like You Used To, Late September (and from the EP): Little Margaret, Silver Dagger

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