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Paul Mark & the Van Dorens – Stowaways (Radiation)

Paul Mark & the Van Dorens - Stowaways
30 June 2016

I first became acquainted with NYC roots-rocker Mark on his serene and bucolic 2010 Mirage Cartography, one of two acoustic guitar instrumental LPs he’s made under his own name (the other being 2000’s Roadside Americana). But he’s been more prolific making albums – on which he actually sings – with longtime backing mates The Van Dorens, a “revolving-door collective of dedicated musicians and production collaborators.” Beginning with 1991’s Go Big or Go Home, Stowaways is their eighth in 24 years, and first since 2012’s Smartest Man in the Room. Unlike the previous seven, however, Stowaways veers from the group’s signature barroom blues and country-rock style. To wit, the attractive, amorous opener “Stow Away,” featuring Mark’s resonant, classical-tinged piano trilling, and accompanied by succulent strings and a gently plunked xylophone, makes you feel like you’re in an 18th century recital room rather than a raucous roadhouse. It’s only Mark’s commanding, coarse, carnival barker-imitating croon, like a cross between Louis Armstrong and Mike Maimone of Chicago’s Mutts (whose music also alternates between rollicking blues/R&B and pretty piano ballads, as on 2013’s Object Performance), which gives the song a more modern day timestamp. The throwback-era theme continues on the whimsical, “Those Were the Days”-evoking “How Do the Blind Become So Famous?” (a sardonic stab at today’s shallow, selfish internet-promoting celebrity icons, perhaps?). It brings to mind a risqué, rabble-rousing vaudeville theater performance, with Mark bellowing his biting lyrics like a bawdy burlesque actor, while abetted by humming harmonium and boisterous boot stomps.

Mark performing “Stow Away” live at Smash Studios, NYC

Next, he summons a scruffy street minstrel on a cover of German composers Kurt Weill’s and Bertoit Brecht’s 1928 Threepenny Opera tune, “The Ballad of Mack the Knife.” On it, Mark opts to follow the later lyrical update penned by Ralph Manheim and John Willett for their 1976 Broadway play “Mack the Knife,” rather than Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 English translation which inspired Armstrong’s 1956 version and Bobby Darin’s 1959 Grammy-winning #1 hit. Elsewhere, he does a delectable duet with sassy, soulful Broadway actress/singer Tess Primack on the laid-back 1940s jazz/lounge ballad “Once Upon a Weekend,” mimics a drunken, down-on-his-luck defense attorney addressing a jury on the doleful “Interesting Times,” and delivers a rambling, reference-packed, cough-punctuated discourse – imagine a bookish beatnik ad-libbing at a smoky saloon’s open-mic night – on “Degraw Avenue.” The sweeping closer “Animal Cruelty” returns to the romantic rumination of the opener, as he cynically superimposes the striking similarities between human and pet relationships. On Stowaways, Mark again displays his knack for making retro music sound ravishing. (radiationrecords.com)

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