If I had to pick one word to describe Mark Mallman's work, schizophrenic is the one that springs most readily to mind. Even my RealPlayer, that dubious tracker of cultural trends, lists a surprisingly varied number of "similar artists" when I pop in his CD: Mark Lanegan (of Queens of the Stone Age), Elliot Smith, and Promise Ring. He's been the leader of the garage-core outfit, the Odd, a wistful tunesmith in collaboration with members of Promise Ring and Pele (Mark Mallman and Vermont), and a hysterical experimentalist, performing his 12-hour found sound piece, "HUMAN INSECT", from inside a refrigerator box. He's been a keyboard-smasher and a clown, even faking his own death before a performance. He's lost label backing, but never the support of his Twin Cities fan base.
His last full-length, recorded one hot summer in a windowless practice space in Milwaukee, was indolent and wistful all at once, with intimate, sparse arrangements. The Who's Gonna Save You Now? EP is a collection of outtakes from the recording session for his latest release, The Red Bedroom. While the full-length sees Mallman returning to the baroque, grandiose style of a few years back, the outtakes are quieter, less bombastic. There's more harmonica and piano than guitar and strings on the EP, although these songs continue the themes of the full-length, albeit at a slightly lower volume.
Is an album that is essentially a collection of b-sides worth buying, even for the non-Mallman purist? I say yes, though with some hesitation. Some of these songs are creepy and affecting in the best ways. Others tend not to pull off that delicate balance and teeter over into the ridiculous or the pathetic.
In the creepy and affecting category is definitely the psychedelic twang/road narrative of "Hook Hand". The song starts with a kind of radio hiss and mutter, wind whistling, and a high lonesome harmonica. The only percussion is a kind of tinkling, like a wind chime or a key chain moving with the bumps in the road. Our protagonist is "Taking the freeway through the Tennessee hills . . . listening for signs of life on the radio".
But it turns out he's got a destination, as the chorus notes while Mallman doubles himself in a weird, almost Adam Sandler falsetto: "Gonna make it through this nightmare / Gonna make it that state fair / Get there tomorrow and I'll never go home". If I was at all tempted to take this as a kind of metaphor (the giant funnel cake in the sky?), the narrative goes on about his job as a carney: "Beats working straight jobs / Beats working nights".
Mallman has a knack for subverting expectations -- for telling a story when you expect a meditation, being serious when you expect a joke, being literal when you expect metaphor. On "Hook Hand", this talent is perfectly showcased: it's a surprising song, not only because it is absurd, but because it is oddly moving.
In other places on the EP, however, Mallman's "Weird Al" tendencies grate a bit, or just fall flat. The falsetto really does sound kinda Adam Sandler-y at times (like "Black Bedroom"), and that's just, well, weird. Or, on "Inside the Castle", what seems, lyrically, to be a sincere love song is ruined by its arrangement. The keyboard riff is almost elevator musicy. It swings a little, like a lounge scene in a David Lynch movie -- but the strings in the second chorus spoil that mood and the earnest lyrics ("I will walk inside the castle that I built for you") seem to have no place in such a hodge-podge of kitch.
The album's absolute stunner and redeemer is "7 AM and Sober Again". Worth the price of admission alone. In his tribute to the Appalachian hymn and the hill country dirge, Mallman sings: "I will remain where I stand / I am a grown man / Who has yet to be reborn". The piano is the clear, solid, chord-filled kind that one imagines being played in old-time parlors a hundred years ago while the pious linked arms and sang along. Yet this is a hymn to getting drunk, falling off stools, calling ex-girlfriends late at night. In other words, trying to get it right, but somehow getting it all wrong and ending up "Alone in the darkness when the movie ends". Before launching into as wrenching a harmonica solo as any hobo drifter ever played himself to sleep, Mallman ends with "Oh Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is at 7 AM and sober again".
A wicked little wink, just in case we thought we had him figured out.