Looking for the first time at Skeleton Crew, the debut album by the mother-son folk duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, one song title leaped out at me: “Big Yellow Taxi”. Internal warning bells rang in my brain. Ugh, that song again? Memories flowed, of being stalked by Counting Crows’ bumbling version through shopping malls and airports. So I skipped straight to that song, the seventh track on Skeleton Crew, to get the pain over with. It turns out I’d fallen for their trick. It’s not the Joni Mitchell song at all, but a playful tune about a busker looking for a place to lay his head. “Last night I slept in a big yellow taxi”, the chorus begins, delivered like a group singalong, like the busker is trying to take a crowd on a street corner through his experience, get them to sing their way into it, together, so they will give him enough money to find a better place to sleep than a freezing cold taxicab.
That playful side and busker side are united throughout Skeleton Crew, an album that’s like a capstone for what’s become an unlikely whirlwind publicity tour for the duo, who until the past year had been mainly playing coffee-shop gigs around the Kansas City area. Now they’re on the David Letterman Show, they’re getting reported on in a Mother’s Day feature on CBS Sunday Morning, they’re playing shows with famous names, they’re getting praise from all corners, they’re on the same label as Mumford & Sons.
Here in Kansas City it’s been a great ‘locals done good’ feel-good news story. They’re garnering attention nationally, perhaps internationally, for what feels like an atypical, un-trendy approach to stardom. Untrendy because of the folksiness of their music, the unabashed quaintness of their songs and the mother-son angle. I can’t think of very many current mother-son superstar collaborations; the first that comes to mind is the album of folk songs Ben and Ellen Harper released last year. Because of that recent precedent and the acoustic setup, I had in mind that the two duos would be more musically similar. But where the Harpers draw a clear line straight back to the ‘60s, to the tradition of protest music especially, the Wards seem to be playing around a bit more, even showing off. And more than history or struggle, they seem interested in storytelling.
Madisen Ward’s singing voice is itself a bit of a show-off, or at least a teller of tall tales. Take a listen to the album’s first single, “Silent Movies”. More so than a narrative, poetry or emotions, what is carried most overtly is his broad attempt to grab our attention through singing. There’s a gospel baritone to it, with quakes and quivers, but also an intentional quirkiness that comes out in yelps and exaggerated motion. It’s that quirkiness that will allow this to fit into “alternative” radio formats where other groups working within American roots music wouldn’t.
Ward’s mother, Ruth Ward (the Mama Bear) occasionally adds a vocal, mainly in light echo of his, but more often focuses on acoustic guitar. Their guitar interplay is perhaps the key collaborative strain through the album, a presence more constant and noticeable than their singing together.
If Madisen Ward’s singing surprises for its somewhat overt oddness, the lyrics sometimes surprise too — not in big, powerful ways but in humble ones. The songs are often smaller than they seem to be. Often they seem to be exploring scenarios and scenes that are fairly lightweight in substance even when they touch on themes of mortality and sadness, which they often do. Imagining, for example, dead flowers piled up on the porch of a widower who’s slowly moving toward death (“Dead Daffodils”). Or thinking up the story of an undertaker falling in love with a woman on death row (“Undertaker and Juniper”).
The lightness in touch can be true whether they’re poking fun at love (“Whole Lotta Problems”) or contemplating the necessities of life (“Live by the Water”). There is a strain of the tragedy of American history here occasionally – it’s inescapable on the final track “Sorrows and Woes”, a survival tale (“when your legs break / you’ve still got your hands”) — and when it shows up the music runs deeper for it. But that isn’t their chief m.o., even if the music often suggests it and the richer side of his singing supports it.
At times, their inclination toward storytelling almost covers up the strengths of their music. In “Fight On”, Ruth Ward’s voice begins the song more forcefully than the way she’s usually used as accompaniment. Right away, her singing seems out of step with the tone of Madisen’s singing on the other songs. She sounds adrift, sad, lost – and sparkles in that role. But when his voice enters the song, a minute or two in, it’s to reveal that the purpose of the song is to tell a story — a lengthy one about a soldier hearing the voice of his lover telling him to “fight on” despite his shakiness and worries. That “fight on” ends up being an anti-war fight, perhaps; it isn’t all that clear. Sometimes there’s more clarity in a voice, a guitar, a feeling than in a story. Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear often seem to know that, but not always.