“There’s a song about a bygone relationship fallen through the cracks of life. There’s a tale for a vagabond lover on the run. A gospel-esque offering about someone’s father — a blue-collar every-man’s hero. One decries a presidential administration and a blues is an open letter asking forgiveness. A couple have churchly overtones replete with an eminent chorus here, a ‘hallelujah’ exclamation there. These are new folk songs written for anyone willing to listen.”
So states the press release heralding Folk Songs for the Curious Few, the latest home-conjured release from Michael Mazzarella.
Immediately recognizable by keen students of ’90s indie pop as the voice, heart, soul and much-more-than-jangle behind those rightfully regarded Rooks, Mazzarella since 1999 has embarked upon a one-man, Bob Dylan-like Bootleg Series of archival and/or “vault” releases before going officially solo with 2006’s Grey Over an Autumn Winter.
Said album “was supposed to represent a mood within a season,” Mazzarella reports, the idea based “on [Frank] Sinatra‘s Capitol concept works, where songs were unified by a theme to paint in sound an isolated motif. Every song minus one was created specifically for that album.
“Even if songs are not connected thematically, there should still be some intrinsic thread that binds them. That’s what an album is — to me.”
Consequently, this autumn finds the man mining similar aspirations, though Folk Songs‘ genesis pointedly steers far from Sinatra levels of loftiness. Simply stated, and oh so thankfully so, it was just “time to do a new album,” Mazzarella realized. “What to write? Needed a direction again. Wrote a song. Wrote another. They had something. Felt and sounded like folk songs to me.”
Then a partial pause to ask himself, “What do folk songs sound and feel like?” So he duly “searched around. Watched the news. Studied friends. Looked in the mirror. Went to visit my father. Read the papers. Listened to Music From Big Pink. Played the piano. Wrote 10 songs — maybe more. Needed a title. Re-approached the folk songs idea. Thought, ‘Who do I think I am to write folk songs?’ Figured, what the heck? Threw it out there. It is what it is.”
It is perhaps Mazzarella’s most eloquently regal, yet still somehow understated undertaking to date. Ten songs “delivered using simple guitars, piano, organ and sparse drumming recorded on a throwback eight-track recorder,” to quote that press release again, gently tipping towards, yes, the Big Pink Band and “White Album” Beatles as well in its delicate keyboard and background vocal arrangements especially.
The opening “Reflections of a Young Girl Gone” brings to ear the gently tense Bookends-era Simon and Garfunkel, and “The Ballad of Who We Are” and especially “Open Letter of Sorry” often channel lost John Lennon Dakota demos meeting Dylan’s Mr. Jones.
But lest matters ever get a tad too reverently retro, along come “In An Ocean” and “October on Bleecker,” which while luring melodies toward Mazzarella’s baroque-pop contemporaries Shane Faubert and Richard X. Heyman end up wholly, unmistakably, and ultimately uniquely Mazzarella.
“It’s always raining somewhere, but when it rains in New York City, it’s poetry and enterprise,” Mazzarella recalls in creating the latter title. “I’m from New England, so I don’t mind to walk in rain. Once, I did so from the West Village to my place on the Upper West. Got a song out of it. I think I caught a cold, but it was worth it.”
To these ears however, the true undeniable gem in this entire collection is “Shine a Little,” which somehow re-creates the deepest, most richly evocative soundscapes of The Rooks at their prime and peak, but by utilizing only Mazzarella’s six strings, keys and the always-supportive vocals of Gail George.
“Tried to write music with a lot of white and yellow in it,” Mazzarella says.”“No earth tones. No heaviness.” Yet there’s plenty of selfless heart-on-sleeve for us curious few to guiltlessly wallow within nevertheless — poetry and enterprise, indeed.
“I know a lot of people,” Mazzarella says. “Some are lost, many are fine and others can’t get out of their own way. We’re all moving along, but to where? There’s too much ‘I need, I want, I have, I bought, I read, I saw, I hate.’
“Stop! We’re lucky to be here. Move along, and be happy you’re around to still move along. Make lemonade.”
Folk Songs for the Curious Few is available now at: http://cdbaby.com/cd/mazzarella4
Michael Mazzarella’s MySpace page is http://www.myspace.com/michaelmazzarella.
— Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.