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Carolyne Mas: Music

The Rock 'N' Roll Review

(www.rocknrollreview.net - Tony Ryan)
2004
"After Modern Dreams' failure to catch on in 1981, Mercury and Mas parted ways and she disappeared from the public eye, or at least what little of it she was exposed to. The great news is that, while in professional "exile", Mas seems to have been creating some of the best music of her career - albeit in almost total anonymity. A number of songs from this (mainly) post -Mercury compilation finally fulfill the potential of her first two Mercury releases.

Three of the best songs on the compilation ("Sleepwalk", Somebody Like Me" and "Where One Meets Two") come from a 1989 German only release called Action Pact and they are more than anyone could ever hope for after eight years between albums. "Sleepwalk" is a cover of the old Santo and Johnny instrumental hit with lyrics added by Mas collaborator, Mark Johnson. But "cover" is far too much of an oversimplification of (and insult to) what Mas does to this song. She reinvigorates and reincarnates it. She claims it as completely her own and renders the original (and all other versions, including Jeff Beck's, The Ventures', Brian Setzer's, etc.) irrelevant. This version has the same mournful steel guitar sound and 50's blanket of reverb of the original but Mas' voice is what dominates on this recording. I never would have believed it possible after 1980's Hold On, but this 1989 recording showcases a voice that is, at once, even more powerful, more full, more rich and more resonant - both sonically and emotionally - than ever before. It is very reminiscent of Patsy Cline in tone and character but the overall sound of the song evokes a sonic tug-of-war between 1950's, Bronx doo-wop, and Owen Bradley's early 60's, "Nashville sound" - something akin to the Chantals being recorded in Bradley's Barn.

Another song from this trio, "Somebody Like Me", like so many songs on this compilation, sacrifices none of its rock and roll swagger and swank in becoming a richly melodic pop gem of the highest order. To write a great pop song that is also a great rock and roll song is no small feat. The record and CD cutout bins are littered with those who tried. The Beatles were probably (undoubtedly) the best at it. Because their songs are so rich in melody, people (wrongly) fail to realize that they rocked just as hard and just as tightly as the Stones and The Who. It is often an assumption, and a misconception, that stunningly attractive melodies, and bands with the power to decapitate, are mutually exclusive. They aren't. Just listen to the Raspberries if the Beatles aren't proof enough. "Somebody Like Me" succeeds because Mas and her backing band, The Skeletons, have just such a power and versatility. They create tension in the song right from the get go. The singing and playing is smoldering and taut but also rich in ascending and cascading melody. You know both are building up to something climatic; you just don't know what. This sense of anticipation is exhilarating and the payoff is exactly what you hoped - but never imagined - it could be. It is what I suspect Modern Dreams wanted to do but that sense of tension was never created. You never got the feeling the songs on that release were going to get to that point where they "lift off" and transform themselves from pleasant pop to transcendent rock and roll. On Beyond Mercury, more than a few of the songs do just that.

As a backing band, the Skeletons cannot be underestimated. They were at one time known as the Morells and served time as Steve Forbert's touring band. If you ever find a copy of the Morell's 1982 LP, Shake and Push, (which was later released on CD) grab it. It's a very entertaining grab bag of - and virtual tour through - rock and roll's first twenty years. Though most of their Skeleton albums have been spotty affairs, their keen awareness of, and heartfelt affinity for, America's rich musical tapestry is beyond reproach. From the point of view of sheer musicianship it's easy to see why they have been called, by some, America's best bar band. They also backed ex-Del Lords, Scott Kempner and Eric Ambel, on their respective solo debuts after the demise of the legendary Del Lords and, at least temporarily, they left the listener not mourning the passing of one of America's greatest rock and roll bands. Some members, at one time or another, have also made important contributions to Dave Alvin's post-Blaster releases. They were a perfect fit for Mas on the three Action Pact songs on this compilation because, like Mas, they are as at home in the roots rock veins of country, folk and blues as they are in girl group pop, street corner doo-wop, Stax-Volt soul and electric jangle pop (both the 60's and 80's kind). This was a marriage that simply had to work and the songs here are certainly worthy offspring of that relationship's consummation.

But as great as these aforementioned two songs are, the third one from the Action Pact album is (unbelievably) even better than they are. With absolutely no disrespect to "Sleepwalk" and "Somebody Like Me" from that album or to "Still Sane" from Carolyne Mas (1979) and "Running From the High Life" on Hold On, (1980), "Where One Meets Two" is simply the finest thing that Mas has ever put to record. This is the crossroads where the sound of the Beatles, the Byrds, Phil Spector, and Bruce Springsteen rushes headlong and crashes into the oncoming melodies of Carole King, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Barry Mann. From this wonderfully concordant carnage, something new and vibrant and totally unexpected springs forth. With guitars that ring and chime and singing that is full of urgency, romance and innocent longing, it is one of those rare and unexpected moments where all the planets in rock and roll's universe perfectly align and you feel like you're the only one awake to witness it.

The really good news on this compilation is that, despite the greatness of those three songs, there are numerous others from different recording sessions over the last ten years that are more than up to those lofty standards. Her 1993 album, Reason Street, was a rather spotty affair but it contained the wonderful (and rather ironic) "Driving On the Radio". It's a song that yearns to be playing through radio speakers everywhere but it never sounds like its willing to sell its soul to get there. It recalls, both musically and vocally, the best of Aimee Mann's Til Tuesday work before the plunge into mediocrity that characterizes so much of her solo work.

The most promising tracks on this release, however, and the ones that bode best for the future, may very well be a series of unreleased songs that Mas recorded in 1995 and 2001. From the 1995 session, "Little by Little" is pleasant enough fare (though a little dull) but the real keeper is the drop dead gorgeous, "Be Your Girl". The music is sparse, with only a gently syncopated bass and drum rhythm, and light touches of keyboards that add more colour than accompaniment to the melody. Over this backdrop, Mas sings her achingly tender lullaby to heartbreak and healing with a voice that is soothing and hushed. Only on the chorus does Mas' vocal rise to wash over (but never drown) the melody and the music. Though the song is a throwback to the innocent yearnings of the Shirelles and the Chiffons, Mas sings it in a voice that is a lot more full of weary resignation and sobering wisdom than anything those two groups ever committed to tape. When she sings "I want to be your girl", it seems not to be with the youthful innocence and unshakeable faith that love will conquer all but, instead, with a hard-earned understanding and hopeful desperation that accepts there is no other alternative but to let love try.

Even more promising are the latest recordings from a January 2001 session. "In the Rain", "Tired of Me" and "I Want Him To" all update the girl group sound to very good effect but with the playful innocence and boundless joy of these 60's recordings left very much intact. In this sense, they are a contrast to the more melancholy feel of the '95 recordings. Considering the drama Mas has been through with career and record label ups and downs, to make music this buoyant, this joyful, this hopeful and this in love with rock and roll, is a miraculous feat in itself. "In the Rain" is vintage All Over the Place-era Bangles - especially on the harmonies - but with better melody than what was on most of that release. It's the kind of song that band would have written more frequently if they ever had to live up to their promise and their press. "Tired of Me", like "In the Rain", implies a song that is somewhat despondent in both title and topic but its sung with such a playful, toe-tapping exuberance, that the listener can't help but be swept up in the singer's seeming elation. It's like some kind of sonic slumber party where the singer is rejoicing in her new found freedom far more than she is mooning or mourning over her lover's sudden departure. The lyric's sunny demeanor, sly wit and catchy cadence ("Bop shu bop, he's gorgeous dead drop / A six foot four leaf clover") only add to the song's British Invasion bounce and shimmy. The last song from these 2001 recordings is "I Want Him To" - a beautifully unadorned, heart-on-the-sleeve paean to eternal love and to marital and domestic bliss. Despite the inherent potential for clich?nd over-emoting with such a topic, "I Want Him To" never sounds cloying or manipulative or the least bit disingenuous. It is brimming with an innocence that comes not from school girl naivet?ut, rather, from a still held belief in love's all healing power and glory. These latest songs are, amazingly, the most optimistic and joy-filled she has ever written. As well, the melody of the song is made no less striking or beautiful by its folksy simplicity. Mas' restraint with respect to her singing and instrumentation - she wrote, produced and recorded everything with just herself and collaborator, Mark Johnson - allows the song's warmth and sincerity to be even more forthcoming to the listener. It's relative nakedness only serves to underscore this honesty and its lack of pretense.

There are three other unreleased tracks from 1999 on this compilation as well, and though the melodies sound very promising, the production and arrangements are too busy and too cluttered to really let the songs breathe. If the same production values that were brought to the '95 and '01songs were applied to these songs, the results might be very interesting indeed. As it is, "Crazy For Your Love" and "Till the Next Time" sound like Dionne Warwick singing a couple of vintage Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs but with far too much modern pop veneer and far too many cooks spoiling the broth. The other '99 demo is a cover of the 1982 Steve Forbert song, "Listen to Me". Here it is entitled "Escuchame" and is sung in Spanish. Language barriers aside, it still doesn't approach Forbert's original. Another track from 1993, "Pain Bank", reveals a more overtly blues side to Mas but the song is too sedentary, too tepid and too by the book to ever rise above its meagre aspirations. This album may have been better served by omitting one of these songs and including one more stunner from Action Pact, the brilliant, "When Love Is Right". It's omission is a grave oversight as only "Where One Meets Two" is a better song...just barely.

Despite these few glitches, this is a very entertaining set on the whole. Considering the lavish praise that has been heaped upon some of the current (and less talented) females signed to the newer, more rock and roll oriented labels, I can only assume that Mas' failure to be under contract is simply the result of her flying too far below - or too far off - the radar screen. Over the past 25 years, I can recall very few artists with this much talent being so allowed to fall so deeply between the cracks. She is a classic rock and roll artist. Labels like Lost Highway, Rounder, Yep Roc, Bloodshot, New West, and Koch would do well to check out these recordings and see what a major talent Mas was and what a major talent she has grown into. An inevitable bidding war would surely ensue. At least, Lost Highway had the foresight to sign 80's rocker, John Eddie, and allow him the opportunity to make the best album of his career. Based on the latest recordings from this release, that is what Mas is more than ready to do. If that's the case, after hearing her Mercury releases, you can just imagine how great her new album would be."