Not many instruments have the power to change a mood as quickly as the humble banjo, one moment it can lead a band to bring about raucous dancing and frivolity and then, with a subtle change in tempo, it can evoke a haunting sadness.
Minnesota-based Mean Mary – or Mary James – has pieced together a dark album which, at times sits somewhere between fairy tale with an eye to gothic moods that looks at the changing seasons as well as changing emotions. It’s reflective, introspective and based around poetic lyrics and that trusty five-stringed banjo.
I had the fortune to hear this album early in the morning a few minutes before the sun began to creep above the horizon and the album reflects these ever-changing moments perfectly. We start with a dark folk tale, initially banjo and a quivering voice before a warming guitar joins, describing the world around it.
As we go through the album the songs change in feel, we go from a feeling of solitude, gradually being joined by other musicians and instruments. James easily skips through different genres, from folk to country to straight up acoustic ballads with an edge for the melancholy and nicely written melodies.
Second track ‘Rainy Day’ betrays its dreary title and feels uplifting and optimistic, think Stevie Nicks at her best and you’ll be someway to the feel of the track, all underpinned with some intricate banjo.
We travel into descriptive tracks in ‘Dark Woods’, ‘Cold (House by the Sea)’ and ‘Snow Falling’ emphasising the importance of the world as a subject and inspiration for the songs, but again, with each song, the mood lifts, the tracks become warmer. ‘Friend I Never Had’ feels like we’re sitting at the fire watching the sun burn through the windows of a cabin on the outskirts of a wood, the day has begun, nature is alive and it’s a time to rejoice.
Fans of Victorian poet Edgar Alan Poe will immediately recognise the lyrics from ‘Quoth The Mockingbird’, his poem The Raven has been given musical support and it works surprisingly well, not seeming out of place among the self-penned songs.
We finish on head-nodder ‘April in December’, ‘Sparrow’ and a final dip into country with fiddle-driven ‘Forevermore’ and it’s time to get on with the day.
For fans of country or folk music that relys on lyrics above Stetsons and atmosphere above riding the latest trend, this is for you. Find a dark morning, a cup of something warm and you might just discover a new musical hero. Definitely worth a listen.