Monday, June 28, 2010

ALBUM REVIEW: Mean Mary - Walk a Little Ways With Me

"I’ll rush into the new day like a penny candy store," Mean Mary sings in 'Shepherd's Hill,' one of ten original tracks on her brand-new CD release 'Walk a Little Ways With Me.' This album is one tasty candy store -- I recommend rushing in at the first opportunity.

'Mean Mary' James, a Florida native now based in Nashville, has been performing since she was five. A multi-instrumentalist, singer and song-writer, 'Walk' is the work of a mature talent. On this outing, she tends toward the country side of the Americana spectrum while staying true to her roots in traditional music, with plenty of hot picking on banjo, guitar and fiddle. Well, fiddling on fiddle, not picking.

One of the highlights for me -- not that it was easy to choose just one -- is the instrumental 'Joy,' a Dueling-Banjos-meets-Beethoven romp on the banjo. Mary's more-than-able accompanist/partner here on guitar is her brother, Frank James. Mean Mary's playing is bluegrass-inflected yet maintains an 'old time' charm. And is, to say the least, virtuosic.

On the other nine songs, all self-penned or co-written by Mary, her vocal abilities are on display as well. This young lady has a strong, confident voice, as sweet, rich and full-bodied as sorghum syrup. It's a voice equally suited to the bluesy 'Rose Tattoo' or the pure countrified exuberance of 'Big Red Barn,' where she sings 'Love's never gonna knock on these barn doors.' Keep it up, Mary, and a lot of folks are going to come knocking.

Mean Mary deftly shifts gears to sing the plaintive almost-a-spiritual 'Choctawhatchee Waltz.' Her voice is every bit as much at home on ballads as it is on the up-tempo songs.

Ultimately, though, it the playing of Mean Mary James that truly dazzles on 'Walk a Little Ways With Me.' There is a competent group of musicians backing her up on the album, plus the presence of her highly talented brother, but Mary is the one doing the lead work on banjo and fiddle, and most of the guitar. Her playing can be fast -- very fast -- yet musical. No technical playing here just for the flashiness of it; Mary's choices always make sense, musically.

If there are weaknesses with the album they are with the songs themselves. By and large, they are good, solid pieces of work but I admit that some are not memorable. That does not keep them from being an enjoyable listening experience.

The title song also features the guest vocals of Bob Arnold, making for an intriguing duet.

Mean Mary is asking you to "just walk a little ways . . .with me." I suggest you take a little trip down that road with her by visiting the Mean Mary James website at . 'Walk a Little Ways With Me' is available both there and at CD Baby.

addendum, Dec 1, 2010: I've listened many times now to this CD and I'm still pretty impressed. There are little things I didn't pick up on at first, such as Mary's mandolin work. Very tasty.

One thing that has bothered me a bit, though, is the over-hot mastering job. Too rock and roll, too little dynamics. It becomes, well, tiring after a while. I suppose, in that I listen mostly to folk and classical for my own pleasure, this doesn't sound right to me. Not what I'm used to.

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