Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear: Skeleton Crew

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.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Skeleton Crew

Label: Glassnote
US Release Date: 2015-05-19
UK Release Date: 2015-05-18

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.





The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.


Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.


'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.


10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.


'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.


The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.