Mark Brown’s long-awaited new CD, Skin and Bone, is finally here. And skin and bone it is, as it rips off the veneer of happy faces and genteel manners—forget easy living—and reveals the pain, longing, and despair you feel sometimes, be it for a lifeless tractor, a gal who just ain’t gonna be there, or just because the moon makes a face at you. Herein lies an artistic dilemma: if you only sing about happy things, you run out of material real quick.
Track 1, “See You Next Time,” launches straight into a catalog of equipment failure—a broken down spreader, pants that don’t fit so well, knuckles and dirt—and makes repeated references to a posthole digger, that essential tool of rural farm life. And it’s all moved along by some haunted Dust Bowl banjo pickin’ from Mike Merenda.
We segue directly into “Trouble,”—“and my old friend despair is usually there”—a jaunty, romantic tune, almost carefree, but for the dysfunctional relationship of the couple it depicts, as they cause each other a mountain of trouble, colliding with financial ruin, “but neither of us could afford a bus, or a ticket to be with you.” All of it served up in Mark’s scratchy baritone reminiscent of Mr. Cash.
The third track features a rollicking, cowboy polka about a guy who “don’t want to get smashed,” though he manages to in general. Check cashed, our blue-collar hero gets liquor and takes a nip or two in the parking lot. Kind of makes you want to join him. Somehow, Mark makes drinking and a picnic at the gravel pit hygienic and desirable. And don’t miss the classic modulation near the end of it.
“Cried in Your Bed,” sounds like a rediscovered Hank Williams gem, and floats along on the subtle, smart, floral pedal steel work of Guy “Fooch” Fischetti; he’s right up there with Ms. Cashdollar. Yup, real men do cry in bed, over girls, over boys, children, ponies, and the sheer, one-way cliff of good old existentialism.
“Creosote,” track 5, offers a more desolate work place opportunity than “See You Next Time.” An industrial site somewhere south of purgatory, you paint fence with poison, trying not to get it on your skin. But you do, and it burns like many of the songs do on this CD. They get under your skin, into your bones, and yes, they burn, they do their job.
Two guys you want to steer clear of are “Hatchet Man,” who has a secret trapped inside and won’t reveal it (know anyone like him?) and “Icy Bob,” who’d sooner slit your throat—tracks 6 and 10. Each is a violent super hero in his own right, Bob the more menacing of the two; both are irresistible. The descending guitar line on “Hatchet Man” is delivered by Ken McGloin, the celebrated, consummate side and front man. “Icy Bob” slides in with something of a horror detective theme that grows to fruition with a stunningly eerie saw solo by Wayne Monteclavo, innovative artist, band leader, and raconteur.
Both “Hurt,” and “When Your Sister Comes,” tracks 7 and 12, express smoldering sensual longing, the adoration of the female form and the not-so-subtle communication that sometimes goes with it. Mark’s lyrics are straightforward constructions, but often achieve poetic stature with lines like (from “Hurt”) “Those tangerines underneath your shirt / that makes me hurt.” And “I wouldn’t wash a glass if it touched your mouth / that makes me hurt.” “When Your Sister Comes” could be an aria for a more refined Stanley Kowalski, and is an edgy ballad of almost uncontrollable desire, not so foreign to our species.
The anthem-like “When the Time Comes” reminds you of the younger Van Morrison, embellished with a soulful, bluesy guitar statement by Ken McGloin. Another poignant misconnection, relationships our dealt out and picked up like cards on a table—love, the ultimate game of chance. “When the Time Comes” is brave, but fateful: “I know you won’t stand in line with me.” Sometimes it’s just too much to ask for.
The next gal who gets away is the one who loves the “Pony,” track 9. No accounting for what passes for attraction in the dating pool these days. The guy is beaten out by a skinny, boney, blue-eyed pony.
Lilting, island easy, and all so lovely, “Sleep Little Angel,” is something only a daddy could have penned: “Just call my name / I’ll dream of you.” It brings to mind John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy.” Guy “Fooch” Fischetti raises the ante with a delicate celestial scarf he ties around the song with his pedal steel, from which flower petals fall. A gift, a turning from darker themes, is what Mark bestows on that one.
If you think of it, a “Spaceship,” track lucky 13, and a trombone have a lot in common, the trombone being the perfect instrument for interstellar travel. It is perhaps the roundness of the sound, the ever-so-mellow tone Dean Jones draws from it, perhaps an unintentional tribute to Jack Teagarden. Dean Jones is the Grammy-winning producer who has masterfully brought this record to life, into the public domain where it belongs. He’s added sparse brush strokes and flourishes along the way, which can be described as accurate, utilitarian, just what the doctor ordered, but truly, there are flashes of brilliance.
Finally, the poet / songwriter laments about his “Granny,” track 14, “she’d write me here / if she could hold a pen / but she lies down beneath the ground in the dress she’s buried in.” A tribute to a strong woman who must have been a bearing wall in his life. She seems to call to him from the other side: a man who struggles. Even “the codfish know I don’t have the luck I had,” but he takes strength from his “Granny” from a call box out west. So strong a bond with this woman whose image he carries with him, a wrenching memorial of enduring love, and perhaps the only right words to finish this record, “I’m still led by the ghost of her / and I wear her like my clothes.” That…feels.
So, here they are, fourteen of them, mined hard from unforgiving ground, plucked from a swirling night sky, drawn up from a deep personal well. In the end it’s about the voice. A roughed-up cabin floor of a voice. A voice of hardship, full of ruts and shakes, kicking up emotion in every line of every cut. Do we know the people in these songs, these tales? Maybe you don’t want to, but they move around in our souls and leave scars. Mark Brown knows them and made their portraits, stark, and black and white. Go on and listen. Then…
Drop your heart
into a blender,
a splash of Jack