Thirty-five years after his obscure first record, the reclusive folkie returns with a pleasant sophomore effort.
Mark Fry’s first record, released in 1972 when he was a mere 19 years of age, is one of those albums that is loved by collectors as much for its obscurity as its musical interest. Frankly, it's one of those albums people like to say is their favourite just to be contrary -- I’ve even seen this happen (my friends are geeks, apparently). In some ways, Fry’s first record suffered from this overstatement. Sometimes cult classics are better when they are hard to find. At least among my annoying friends, when it was still obscure, unavailable, the stuff of whispers, Dreaming with Alice was somehow more interesting.
An indisputably good record, Dreaming with Alice was re-released in 2006 by Sunbeam Records to a certain degree of fanfare (especially in the UK, Fry’s mother country), but, let’s face it, California Bloodlines, In My Own Time, White Light, or Blue River it ain’t. With overtones of Donovan and Iain Matthews-era Fairport Convention, it boasts some strong songwriting and interesting guitar work, but won’t change the way you hear music.
Nor, it must be said, will Fry’s unbelievably long-awaited follow-up, Shooting the Moon. 35 years after that fabled first record, Fry’s return is less the triumphant comeback of a once-powerful artist than the debut of another guy entirely. Fry is now a grown man, three-and-a-half decades from wherever he had been in his still-teenaged youth, and his songwriting, performances, and voice shows it. In other words, fans of the former incarnation might not notice much in the latter that moves them. And, it must be said, vice versa. Curious, that.
Shooting the Moon’s fifteen new tracks were recorded in a farmhouse in his adoptive home of France, and bear the marks of steady, focused musicianship. Fry is here a careful songwriter, and an even more careful performer. His guitar lines are remarkably stable and balanced, and his voice (a gravelly interpretation of its younger version) is everything in its right place. It's a pleasure to listen to such a campfire record, an album so completely infused with the colour and quality of life off the grid. Fry’s lyrics, evocative of starshine, country drives, and waning silver moons, are the stuff of classic rural folk. If your inclination is to early Bruce Cockburn or Ralph McTell, you may be drawn to the stuff on display.
In card games, shooting the moon is about taking risks. In euchre, you shoot the moon with the hope of winning it all; the flipside, of course, is that if you fail, you shall lose everything. Fry’s record demonstrates little of the risk suggested by his titular metaphor. The music is pleasant, often dreamy, and certainly measured. It is often coloured by lengthy saxophone solos. It is in every way mature, where Dreaming with Alice was powerfully youthful. This is both good and bad, but it is mostly bad. Because mature, deliberate, careful folk music quite often translates into slow, tedious, sentimental background music. Too often on this record, Fry has trapped himself in this unhappy corner.
On the best tracks -- especially “Satellite” and “Who Cares” -- Fry moves us beyond the everyday, bringing something a little unexpected to the fore. On the former track, an alt-country groove flows throughout, all shimmering steel and tinkling piano. On the latter, it’s like Fry has channeled the Eels, his voice a drifting, haggard shadow of what it offers elsewhere. But the other thirteen songs yield few such revelations. There is a sameness to many of them, and certainly a mood that feels both uninterrupted and too languid to compel. Unlike on his last record -- how silly to compare with an album that went out of print before I was born! -- Fry is here riffing on the same (or similar) ideas over and over again.
So, shake off those cobwebs, Mr. Fry, and welcome back. Now that you’ve got that sophomore slump out of the way, you’re free to experiment once again. We’ll be here to listen when you return. That is, if it doesn’t take 35 more years.