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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1305

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Karen Mal: Mercury's Wings
by George Graham

(Boars Nest 1228 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/11/2002)

The increasing popularity of bluegrass, especially the more song-oriented artists like Alison Krauss, is inspiring some singer-songwriters to move in a similarly acoustic direction, rather than the more electric rock route taken on record by artists who may otherwise perform acoustically in concert. This week we have a pleasing new release by an articulate songwriter who is not afraid to bring some mandolins, Dobros and banjos into her music that is otherwise in the classic introspective folkie mode.

Her name is Karen Mal, and her new second CD is called Mercury's Wings. Part of the active Austin, Texas, music scene, Ms. Mal grew up in Connecticut, and says that over the years she has lived in about twenty different locations. Over the last three years, she has begun to attract attention in Austin, and at venues like the Kerrville Folk Festival, where she won honors in the new folk songwriting category. Ms. Mal also has created music for the theater, including a Wisconsin production of Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Ms. Mal in many ways works well-plowed ground, singing songs, frequently related to love relationships in various states, in an acoustic guitar-based setting. But while her material is not surprising for its content, the quality of the songs and the performances on her CD are top notch. She has a gift for intelligent turns of phrase, and narrative songs that introduce details, fleshing out the story-lines in an intriguing way. She is joined by a tasteful acoustic group, including acoustic bass on several tracks, and frequent hints of bluegrass in the arrangements. Her voice is the epitome of what a folk singer-songwriter should sound like -- clear and very appealing.

While most of the music is original, Ms. Mal does collaborate in the writing with two other songwriters, and also covers a song by one of them, as well as doing a piece by Tish Hinojosa and Peter Rowan. The backing musicians are mainly part of the Austin music scene, including some supporting musicians for people like Slaid Cleaves and Tish Hinojosa. Probably the most notable guest appearance is by Kelly Willis, who sings with Ms. Mal on two tracks. The regular band includes acoustic bassist David Carroll, percussionist Paul Pearcy, and Chris Irwin on electric bass and backing vocals.

Leading off is one of the album's most memorable songs, Where the Seeds Are Found, which tells the story of how the arrival of children can affect one's previous life plans. <<>>

Decidedly in a bluegrass direction is a song that features Kelly Willis' guest vocal appearance, Beyond the Headlights. With all the travelling that Ms. Mal has done, it's not surprising that she created a couple of road songs. Ms. Mal's mandolin and Jeff Plankenhorn's Dobro provide the proper bluegrass atmosphere. <<>>

More introspective in direction, both musically and lyrically, is Imagination, which considers parting. Making a guest appearance is Glenn Kawamoto who is heard on the fretless electric bass. <<>>

The title piece, Mercury's Wings carried a dedication "to Fred" who must have been one of those people who lived life to the fullest, but apparently came to an early demise. It's one of the CD's highlight, with some of Ms. Mal's best lyric writing, as well as an attractive acoustic setting. <<>>

While most of the music is original by Ms. Mal and her collaborators, there are two songs by other composers. One is another song about travelling, Take a Drive, which was written by Jeff Talmadge, who elsewhere collaborates with Ms. Mal in writing. It's actually a combination of a love song and a road song, and interesting in the way the two are combined. <<>>

The other track featuring Kelly Willis on the backing vocals is Gibraltar Road, with a bit more country influence which may have been inspired by the presence of Ms. Willis. The engaging, well-crafted lyrics about travelling and the tug of home, may well have been inspired by Ms. Mal's peripatetic life. <<>>

The one real cover song is the Tish Hinojosa/Peter Rowan composition Solo Tus Ojos, or "only your eyes." The romantic song sung in Spanish has a suitably Mexican or Tex-Mex sound. <<>>

Like the opening track Where The Seeds Are Found, the song called Rosalie revolves about a young child in a family. In this case, it's an engaging vignette about a little girl and the protagonist's need to say goodbye, even if temporarily. <<>>

Karen Mal's new CD Mercury's Wings is a very enjoyable recording in the classic singer-songwriter tradition -- well-crafted lyrics and attractive melodies, with Ms. Mal's clear, expressive, instantly-appealing vocals, all in an acoustic often bluegrass-influenced musical setting. While the songs' subjects have been addressed many times before, Ms. Mal is capable of shedding some new light on them with her skill and creativity as a lyricist, something that is aided by the acoustic instrumentation and tasteful playing by all involved.

If there is a quibble I have with the CD, it's in the audio quality. The original sessions were well-recorded -- and I especially like the sound of Ms. Mal's vocals, which eschew reverberation and other common studio effects. But the mastered CD suffers from the all-too-common problem, about which we complain virtually every week, of excessive audio compression, which turns the intimacy of the acoustic music into an in-your-face sound that's just loud almost all the time. This is an independent release, and unfortunately, there seems to be a fallacy perpetuated among some books by supposed audio professionals and websites that a compressed sound on a CD is somehow required for airplay. It's sad that so many artists and producers are falling for this completely false notion that has resulted in so many good recordings being ruined in the mastering process.

Karen Mal had already begun to make some significant inroads on the very competitive Texas singer-songwriter scene. Mercury's Wings should help get the word out about a fine artist who has all the right ingredients.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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