Mark Lemhouse pulls a gutsy move by moving away from the Memphis/Mississippi stylings of his debut album -- with a surprisingly awesome effect.
Keep this name floating around in your head somewhere: Mark Lemhouse. The Oregon native went and learned the blues from some Memphis and Mississippi masters, and his 2003 debut, High Lonesome Radio, is a perfect framework of mixing rural blues with a classic feel (thanks to using old equipment and analog tape).
Of course, just about every recording artist or band has to worry about the "sophomore slump". More often than not, the second album takes a nosedive for a very simple reason: After the artist/band spends years to prepare for its debut (and the long-term toil of blood, sweat and tears comes to fruition) there's less time to come up with a second effort that's just as strong. Scrambling to replicate the debut's success, most artists succumb to the pressure to reproduce a quality item on short notice.
Lemhouse decided to combat that second-album jinx by throwing caution to the wind. On his newest release, The Great American Yard Sale, Lemhouse revamped his sound. The obvious blues domination of the debut is not there for this album. Oh, don't get me wrong, there's still blues to be had here. It's just there's more than blues that shares this musical palette. And it ain't bad.
Take the leadoff track, "Scarlet". It opens with a banjo, runs to a pedal steel, and an acoustic guitar holds it all together in the background. And with its shuffle beat, it's not exactly chapter and verse out of the blues canon, but it still has the feeling, especially with the slide solo smack dab in the middle of it. These kinds of twists and turns are sprinkled throughout the album. The next track moves further away from blues, as "Paper Sack" is a slow dance number with the same instruments; it'll give you the urge to throw some hip swaying into the fray.
All inclusively, Lemhouse's playing is professional and imaginative. His singing goes with the mood of each song, no obnoxiousness here, and his writing captures the imagination. That said, one of the two cover songs here, "Cluck Old Hen", is a simple blues jam that works. The two funniest original songs here are "The Unofficial Ballad of Story Musgrave" (about a wannabe astronaut) and the closer, "You're a Bastard" (not to be confused with Ian Hunter's "Bastard").
All this diversification will only enhance Mark Lemhouse's talent base and reputation. The fact he stretched his boundaries so soon was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. Lemhouse is talented enough to inject blues in anything he tries without compromise. His musicianship is wide-ranging and if there was any justice in the music world, Mark Lemhouse would be a star along the lines of R.L. Burnside or a Dwight Yoakam (who, on some songs, he draws a favorable comparison). For now, he's still paying a few dues, but over time, he'll get that payback in spades. The Great American Yard Sale is a fine, fun album.