Artist: Mike Mangione & the Union
Mike Mangione & The Union builds lush soundscapes for tender songs full of longing. Over all manner of stringed instruments (guitars, violin/fiddle, and cello) and percussion (kit, hand), Mangione exerts impeccable control in shading and coloring his voice to suit the myriad moods of the expertly produced, Red-Winged Blackbird Man. Mangione's nuanced delivery, when considered in light of his seemingly unrestrained passion, rivals that of Ryan Adams.
Very often, a voice like Mangione's comes along only to be quashed by poor musicianship, production and/or lyrics. This couldn't be further from the truth here. The supporting musicians are studio-caliber (Tom Mangione, Patrick Hoctor, Kristina Priceman, John Collins, and Nez); the production, perfectly captured; and the lyrics, splendid on story songs like "Fields of Evermore" and "American Martyr."
Album-opener, "Fields of Evermore," stuns first with Priceman/Hoctor's strings, and then with a story befitting the best in Americana music. It follows a farmer committing ("I'm going to work the land of my father"), promising ("I'm going to make it rain somehow"), and finally resorting to appeals for mercy ("Mercy come and hold me now get behind the plow"). But particularly praiseworthy are the subtle particulars, "My cracked hands hold the rhythm / I walk the furrow with an offering / I can't wash my hands too often boys / On account of the burn and sting."
Likewise, "American Martyr" features memorable turns of phrase -- "I took the low one / 'Cause the high road was painted black / 17 when I left my home / I was running from nothing"; and "She was running from something big / And I had found a car / We'd spit out drunken dreams how she would be a star / She gave me fever / I kept her warm at night / I called her my baby"; and "But he liked her dancing / Then she forgotten me / Around a pole she makes enough to eat / Hell I didn't know she was hungry" -- always separated by an ever-catchy melody writ both large and small as the moment dictates.
Also particularly memorable: the spare bluesy vocal opening of "Cold Cold Ground 1" that the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach would envy (if not for The Union's pristine guitar flourish and percussive embellishment); the powerful vocal hook, "Nothing here / can save me now," on "Love Me Falling"; and Mangione's exuberantly ascending vocal on "Dream of Home Once Again," recalling Nate Ruess' triumphal choruses for indie pop band, "fun."
Like sunlight on soft grass, Mike Mangione & The Union and Red-Winged Blackbird Man are comfort and beauty in equal measure.
*** The author of this review, Walter Phillips, plays the quinto for the following band: http://youtu.be/tMS73-1kCr8