The Mammals
Departure
Signature Sounds
2006
B-



the Mammals could look backward easily enough: their members include Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (Pete Seeger's grandson) and Ruth Ungar (fiddler Jay Unger's daughter). On Departure, the quintet quits looking back even as they spin inside traditional folk music. At the same time, they don't exactly move forward; the group doesn't try to change what the music is or to take it to a new place as much as they play within the typical codes of the genre. The mild experimentalism results in a folk-rock that carries as much curiosity as comfort.

In an odd nod both to and against convention, the group foregoes trad. arr. village tunes in favor of some relatively recent songs to cover. The Morphine track, "Do Not Go Quietly unto Your Grave," comes as a natural fit, opening with a relatively dark drone before Michael Merenda takes up a bluesy vocal. "Solo le Pido a Dios" comes from the pen of Leon Gieco and has been performed by Arlo Guthrie. The Mammals keep the Spanish lyrics, but include the translation in their liner notes. The song works as a prayer and as an antidote to self-righteous political assertion. The final cover is from a Nirvana song, which comes as it never was, country slinky, with Ungar's soft field voice adding a new tone to Cobain's plea.

While the group performs its covers well, it succeeds more on the album's nine originals. The album opener, "Follow Me to Carthage" shows the band at its compositional peak. Merenda's song carries a firm political stance concerning the New York Times, but it’s buried by poesy and '60s harmonies. Musically, the song reveals its anger by the dark chord progression (and accompanying guitar melody) that follows the chorus. This musical form finds human voice in the track's final, wearied complaint: "The television drones out the world / With the drone of the world."

The group never backs away from its politics (as on "Silk Song," which is the rural answer to Kanye's "Diamonds," with an added touch of anti-materialism). Fortunately, the Mammals avoid heavy-handedness, largely due to Merenda's deft subtlety and the group's light execution of the music. "Alone on the Homestead" provides the album's other most blunt political moment, as a woman laments the loss of her family in an inappropriate war, when "papers wouldn't even print coffins draped with flags." The song lacks incisive thought, but makes up for it with concise frustration: "And when the war is over, and too many have bled / I doubt I'll feel much safer alone on my homestead." Perhaps when all the ranting is done, plain-speak will have its say.

Not all of the album's songs stem from political motives: one of the most effective is centered on a personal struggle. "Please Come In," written and sung by Ungar, gives a hermit's plea for company as she says, "My door ain't open / But you know it's never locked." Her invitation confesses weakness: she's had a long battle and doesn't want to be alone any more because her "disguise is wearing thin." It's an excellent cap for a band that punctuates a pleasing album of displeasure with a desire for light.

A baited-Reds past informs the Mammals' work, but they don't create music for the work-camp or the railroad. The instruments—primarily acoustic guitar, banjo, and fiddle—develop simple lines that lock tightly as they explore their arrangements. The resulting effect is more pristine than old protest songs, which is maybe as it should be for a contemporary folk act in the studio. The songs on Departure are folk as it's always been, but sounding like it's now.


Reviewed by: Justin Cober-Lake
Reviewed on: 2006-02-15
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