[6 March 2014]
Formerly the drummer of seminal grunge outfit Screaming Trees, Mark Pickerel’s career has taken several interesting turns since his early musical days in Seattle. Besides owning and operating an independent music store for several years, Pickerel has worked with alt-country luminaries like Neko Case and fronted the neo-psychedelic outfit the Dark Fantastic. But starting in 2006, Pickerel has released three solo albums under the moniker Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands, the latest being Tess, which picks up where 2008’s Cody’s Dream left off—a brand of muscular country-rock shaded with weird darkness. And though the drummer-turned-frontman concern may have loomed over Pickerel’s work with the Dark Fantastic and his first solo albums, that worry has completely evaporated with Tess. As a vocalist, Pickerel shows himself to be every bit as commanding as former bandmate Mark Lanegan, imbuing the characters of his songs with a kind of manic precision on tracks like “I Study Horses”: “I tried to impose private prohibition / I tried to lay down imposition of submission / but freedom already comes with so many restrictions.” Not all of the album is so taut. The nearly six minutes of “The Throes of Love” drags on too long and opener “Man Overboard” is a bit of a languid way to kick things off. But as far as I’m concerned, Pickerel redeems himself with slow-burning closer “Summer in Your Eyes”, where he caps off a great build with a well-orchestrated key change.