Although from Milwaukee, it would appear that Mark Mallman has more Minneapolis blood in his veins than that of his Wisconsin hometown. Originally the lead singer behind the Odd, a Rolling Stones-inspired band, Mallman went into a solo career shortly thereafter in 1998. A debut album, The Tourist was received quite well as was his follow-up disc, How I Lost My Life and Lived to Tell About It in 2001. Now on his third release, Mallman has added to his reputation as a talented and thoughtful recording that is a blend of Ryan Adams and fellow Minnesota legends, the Replacements.
Starting off with a piano solo on the ballad “City Of Sound”, Mallman creates a slightly orchestral feeling with backing strings and a simplistic structure in the vein of Elton John’s recent album, Songs from the West Coast. The tune has a slow sway to it in like some of Ryan Adams’ Gold but ends just when it begins to soar into a memorable track. Another verse or repeated chorus wouldn’t diminish the song, but Mallman tends to make it too short but rather sweet. “Love Look at You” resembles an upbeat and poppy Paul Westerberg, but tends to be a bit schmaltzy in the chorus, too studio polished to have the desired effect. The number also reverts to a format similar to the opening track, only with more vocals and guitar.
One aspect worth taking notice is the personnel Mallman has on the album. Members of the Promise Ring as well as former Replacements’ bassist Slim Dunlop make brief appearances that add a lot to the record. On “Humankind”, producer Paul Q. Kolderie (who has worked with Hole and Radiohead) adds his subtle touches. The song resembles a ‘70s song that David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust would be weary of trying for its theatrics, but a tune Meat Loaf would bypass for being not theatrical enough. “All I want is peace of mind,” Mallman sings over arena rock guitar riffs and a winding arrangement. The longer the song goes though, the weaker it gets, dissolving into a tired sounding crescendo. “Baby Takes It Slow” tends to move into the same area, although it’s tighter and shows Mallman at his soulful sounding best. “Traveling High” speaks about Jimmy Buffett on cassettes, living in a hotel and trying to woo the waitress to no effect. When Mallman is alone with a small sounding background, the tunes have a much better flow, not as choppy or “big” sounding. The harmonica here also works well.
The second side of the album begins with a roots rock sound on “Life Between Heartbeats”, sounding like Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker if he grew up in the Midwest. It also could draw comparisons to Tom Petty’s “Yer So Bad” with a tale of suburban quirkiness. “Seems that love is but a pet that always dies,” Mallman sings on the album’s highlight. The track lasts nearly five minutes, but on first listen it has such a flow it feels more like three minutes. “Who’s Gonna Save You Now” is another stellar track that has a distinct ‘70s feeling to it while being fresh. Mallman finds his vocals in finer form on the ballads, especially on the poignant “Lose Something”. Here Mallman moves into an almost minstrel sound with violin and a country touch.
Unfortunately for Mallman, one of the weaker tracks is the title track, a tune Ben Folds would do justice to but here, falls short of the mark if not missing it completely. Aside from being aimless, Mallman ambles along at a pace that destroys the song. Attempting to save it with some grandiose guitars only adds to the mess. “Mother Made Me Do It” has a highbrow pop feeling to it, giving the album a final shot of Mallman’s obvious ability. The electronic sounds on the song are also a welcome departure from the piano-oriented early songs. A few songs tend to cloud such talent, but on the whole Mallman is on the right track. Fans of smart melodic pop would do well to find this disc.
// Notes from the Road
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