Saturday, November 2, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1313: The Mastersons

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey. Ten years in I’m still a long way from finishing my mission of reviewing all the albums in my collection. It would be easier if I stopped buying new ones. Musicians would need to stop producing such great art for that to happen, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Disc 1313 is… Good Luck Charm
Artist: The Mastersons

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? Supposedly, the constellation Lepus (the rabbit).  I’m not much of a stargazer, but the stars don’t look right here. Of course, cosmic-scale rabbits don’t make a lot of sense to begin with. Fun fact, Lepus is directly below Orion if you’re searching for it. Maybe find a better rendition of what stars to look for, though.

How I Came to Know It: I saw the Mastersons when they opened for Steve Earle about five years ago (and also formed part of his band at the time – the Dukes and Duchesses). I didn’t buy their albums at the show but regretted it and sought them out later.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Mastersons albums. (I once had three but I gave away 2017’s “Transient Lullaby” after reviewing it back at Disc 1130). Of all three, I put “Good Luck Charm” in at #2.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Good Luck Charm” launches with energy and enthusiasm, setting a high bar that’s ultimately too high to reach over the course of the record.

The formula for this record (the Mastersons’ second) is the same as others; uplifting alt-country tunes that rely heavily on the pretty harmonies of husband and wife team Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore. As ever, Whitmore is the star of the show. Her voice is an equal mix of sweet and power, with a tone that is comfortable like a long-term relationship. Think manic pixie girl, but five years into the relationship.

The record’s best effort is its first, with the title track “Good Luck Charm”, “Closer to You” and “If I Wanted To” delivering a 1-2-3 punch that had me genuinely excited for what was to follow.

The title track is a series of sad observations about the state of society, wrapped in an uplifting tune that makes you feel like the narrator’s plea for a good luck charm is going to be answered. The song is indicative of a record that approaches sadness, but never takes a full wallow.

This isn’t always what’s called for, however. Later in the record “Cautionary Tale” is a character study of self-destructive behavior. The lyrics are dark enough, but despite some well-placed minor notes the tune is a bit too polished and upbeat to land the requisite gravitas of the subject matter.

Back to the front of the record, where the second song “Closer to You” has a delightful swing that sounds like a cross between the country jump of a Dixie Chicks song and the whimsical contemporary folk of Dar Williams. The Mastersons write their music, which isn’t always critical - think Waylon Jennings singing Billy Joe Shaver songs - but I have a bias toward singers that also penned the tune.

Closer to You” is an example of a sad song (it’s about reminiscing about a lost parent) wrapped in a happy worldview. Yes, the father is dead, but the song’s resolution is to both appreciate the time you had, and to appreciate the great moments with those who remain. Sometimes the Mastersons are a bit too cheery, but on “Closer to You” it is exactly what’s called for.

The record is held back by a couple of things. First, while the lyrics are simple truths that suit the tunes, I could’ve used a bit more poetry. Strained phrases like “rhetoricin’ politicians make me mad” (from the title track) hide well enough in the strength of the tune, but don’t add much to it.

Second, the production is very polished. Despite their alternative country roots, the album has that smooth Nashville country sound that blunts the emotional impact. The violin on “Cautionary Tale” are an example. They are played beautifully but where a poignant musical note was needed, it reads as easy listening. While I’m picking a bit on this song, the problem rears its head in other songs as well.

While the opening of the record is the best part, there are some late-arriving gems that kept my head in the game, notably the carefree love song “Easy By Your Side” and the album’s final track, “Time is Tender.” The latter – like “Closer to You” – is a reminder not to waste the time you’ve got in life.

Time is Tender” is a song where Chris Masterson takes the lead. Usually I prefer Whitmore, but here he rises to the occasion, delivering one of his best vocal performances. “Time is Tender” also features some of the album’s best lyrics, including this delightful section in the second verse:

“Now the miles turned into memories
And the days don’t seem to end
What don’t kill you
Sure does leave you tired.”

It sure does. Hearing this song fading out as I type these words reminds me that despite the album’s strong opening, the Mastersons still managed to save the best for last.

Best tracks: Good Luck Charm, Closer to You, If I Wanted To, Easy By Your Side, Time Is Tender

No comments: