Mike Viola hasn't had an easy time of it. Having played in bands since the age of 13, he's long been sold on the rock star dream of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll". This record is about Viola's release of that dream/delusion -- his breakthrough, if you will, to embrace reality.
Hang On, Mike is audio therapy for Mr. Viola, giving voice to much that has plagued him over the years, personal crises worked out through song, you might say, discussing himself in the third person. In the hands of a lesser craftsman, such an undertaking might prove weird, strange, or just an ill-guided mess. In the hands of Viola, with his melodic skills and dark wit it becomes a gem of intimacy and sweet aplomb, never too heavy-handed and as infectious as anything.
These dozen special songs wear well, growing on you and bringing good feelings like a great big musical hug. This music is deliciously personal, a man unafraid to bare the ugly along with the beautiful, and while not overtly commercial in any sense, I'm sure it will fast become a favorite of many. It's already one of mine.
Leading off is "What to Do with Michael", the story of Mike and his ladylove, their storybook meeting in Paris in the mid-1990s and eventual reunion in New York, and how she was capable of changing his life: "She knows what to do with Michael / She knows how to make him feel / That he's the one / He's his mother's son / Not like anyone / He just needs time to heal".
The first single is the pleasant mid-tempo "Nice to Know You". This well-arranged and pretty number is about the vagaries of love, especially when you've met someone who is everything you'll ever need.
The somber and poignant "Unexpected Traffic" is all about the exhaustion of touring, the difficulty and illusion of being free: "The trouble comes on in a flood of fear like unexpected traffic / Where even a smile of strength appears unexpectedly tragic". As usual, Viola's guitar tones are crisp, clean and open enough to allow his vocals space to be up front and direct.
One aspect of this album is the reunion of sorts between Mike and his childhood friend, one-time Candy Butcher drummer Todd Foulsham (who played with Mike on the 1996 EP Live at La Bonbonniere). Their long relationship is explored in the song "Kiss Alive II", a celebration of their friendship that has remained strong after so many years and some pleasant memories: "I gave you Benny & the Jets, you gave me Kiss Alive II".
The title track is a wonderful centerpiece, a message from Mike to Mike, reminding him to keep the creative dream alive: "Hang on, Mike, if there's one thing you're good for it's holding on / Hang on, Mike, if there's one thing you're good for it's another song / Hang on, Mike, if there's one thing I'm hoping for / That you'll be happy or die artistic from self-expression in a wave of delivering it / Though you're unhappy, I still feel so lucky / Hang on". As another lucky and often unhappy one still pursuing the big dream, these words of advice are inspirational. Hanging on becomes half the battle won.
Perhaps the most nakedly autobiographical piece here is the quiet ballad "Painkillers", in which Mike comes to grips with memories of the death (from cancer) of his first wife, and how his current wife Audrey helps him through it. If you aren't touched by this one, you must be made of stone: "To wake up with Kim again, she's as beautiful as I remember, spying on me through her long brown hair and walking beside me without a wheelchair / Somehow I think she returns to show there's nothing to fear anymore but I cannot sleep because I'm worried about her, the painkillers clouded the angels around her / There are times that I barely get by, well I hope that you understand / There are times all I can do is cry, well I hope that you understand".
A close second place in the "let's reveal all" category is the lovely song "Charlie", which Mike wrote about his mother's early years as an abused child caught up in the horrible foster care system (yet that's not immediately evident in the lyrics): "Charlie close your weary eyes, try to sing yourself to sleep, in a field of rusted wire the wind plays harmony / Charlie lay your burden down as the snow begins to thaw, everything will be revealed right in your own backyard".
Growing up in Stoughton, Massachusetts, Viola was something of a teen rock star prodigy, full of promise and firmly in the limelight at age 13. But has he lived up to the promise of those early days? Mike delves into that issue in "Superkid", a combination of memories from those times and a realization that the super child now is just as old as you or me and perhaps not so super anymore. This bittersweet lyric puts it succinctly: "Nothing can fool you like a dream".
"Not So Bad at All" sings the praises of good friends and their company as a means to get through what ails you. Everybody laughs and everybody cries, and second chances happen easily -- no, not bad at all.
One of the lighter tracks here is "Let's Have a Baby", in which fears about being too old, not enough space, not ready yet, etc. are allayed by a true desire to have the child ("Sadie, Chloe, Sammy, or Maximillian").
These are songs that will remain with you long after you listen to them and one of the most infectious is "Sparkle!". Viola is great at hiding darker content inside a bouncy light melody. Here we are lead from a showtune-type opening to a rollicking disco bassline and one masterful falsetto hook, all in the service of a song about wanting someone to pull through after some sort of detox hospitalization stay (or was it from a breakdown, hard to call). The sentiments are heartfelt and direct: "We love you and we care about you, but we need you to tell us the truth, 'cause we want you to really pull through this time -- Get your head in the mix, take your medicine on time / Get your head in the mix, you're gonna feel better in no time at all".
The CD ends with a song that manages to sum it all up, this letting go of his rock and roll dreams, via the Beatle-esque anthem "Hunker Down". He is coming to grips with the fact that the external trappings of success are not what it's all about -- but that you should save your energy for your art: "Hunker Down, you will be on the mic again / There will be times of laughter, but you won't hear a thing / Hunker Down, you will be on the list again / There will be tons of people, but you won't see a thing".
I commend Mike Viola for having the courage (and talent) to set many of his private emotional lodestones to music and put them down on a disc. This from a man who compares his career to something he saw once on the old TV show "Real People", some guy who decided to build a highway in his backyard and at age 90, had only completed one mile. "Me and my buddies are just building my highway," he says, "and when people see it they're in awe of the dedication and the tenacity. It's a highway, but I'm not sure where it's headed."
If Hang On, Mike is any indication, it's headed in the right direction. Mike and his Candy Butcher helpers (Todd Foulsham, Pete Donnelly, Mike "Beans" Benigno, Mike Gent, and Jed Parish) have assembled the best therapy session on record, with songs that will charm and win you over. As usual, the production is superb, with just the right musical choices and arrangements.
Diehard Viola fans will adore this CD, but even newcomers should take notice. While not overtly commercial, it's certainly catchy enough and has potential for widespread appeal. Viola knows his life has been "a trial by fire" to date, but thanks to his ongoing talents we're now able to share in the feelings behind the scenes and even sing along with them. Get Hang On, Mike: it's cathartic for him, melodic for you. Now how cool is that?