Mean Mary (Mary James) was inspired by her own journal entries and the work of Edgar Allen Poe. Born in Alabama then moved to Florida, she also roughed it in the wilds of Minnesota aged 4. Considering the unremitting wintry theming of this album, it would seem the experience had a profound impact on her.
Mary showed musical aptitude at an early age. She could read music before she could read words, and started co-writing songs aged 5. In fact, Mary was singing and playing guitar, violin and banjo across the country by the age of 7. She’s now proficient with 11 instruments. This goes some way to explaining the respect given to the instrumental pieces on this album.
The record turned out to be a family affair. Additional guitar pieces and vocals were provided by her brother Frank James. Also, her mother Jean James – an award-winning writer – co-wrote 7 songs.
With prominent banjo and accordion, Cold’s opening number, I Fell into The Night, has a Southern gothic feel. There’s fragility and anger in Mary’s deep voice which reverberates theatrically to match the setting of the song. The narrator is uncertain but the tone of the music is clear. The closing line “the last night of summer before the fall” can be understood both literally and figuratively.
Mean Mary’s low register and style of pushing, even punishing, the guitar in Rainy Day are both reminiscent of Springsteen, but with trilling verging on a yodel in the chorus. It strikes as autobiographical rather than observational, but the sentiments are universal: “Dreams grown old/hopes all flown/the coldest cold I’ve ever known.”
True mountain music
Dark Woods is suitably unsettling as Mary’s voice looms over the fingerpicked melody. It’s quite a surprise when the chorus turns the song into a spirited jig. She urges “leave your troubles, your worldly goods/and run with me, run with me/to the dark woods.”
Cold (House By The Sea) has a timeless, European sound. It’s a detailed, day-by-day dissection of a failing relationship: “The waves keep rolling on, and then they’re gone, just like your love for me.” The Baltic Sea becomes a character as the song progresses into an 8-minute epic.
The thematic chill of the record really hits as Snow Falling starts. It layers up with some impressive harmonies, then ends with an extended echoey fade. It gives a sense that the number of places with similar experiences of snow is practically infinite.
Sad November Breeze has a different sound but it’s still plaintive and nostalgic. It could have belonged to folk singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s poetic about the pain of solitude: “I think I hear the leaves sing as they fall/Like I think I hear you answer when I call.”
Friend I Never Had is a compelling bluesy shuffle morality tale about empathising with homeless people. It avoids being preachy as the narrator acknowledges their own privilege: “Filled with good intentions, and a measure of conceit.”
April In December is more contemporary sounding than the previous songs. It could conceivably be synced for a TV show and might even have been commercially successful in the Lilith Fair era.
Quoth The Mockingbird is a reworking of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Here, a mockingbird takes the place of the raven, and there’s a sense of separation rather than grief. The low register vocal of the acapella intro is reminiscent of a spiritual, then the pace picks up to drive the drama.
Sparrow seems like a modern re-telling of the same tale: “One lone sparrow perched its roof, but no one else was there…The sparrow never budged at all, but let the world unfold/With sparkling eyes turned to the skies.” There’s a clever comparison between the sparrow’s perseverance and the narrator’s own futile persistence: “Why did I keep coming back/what was I waiting for?”
Forevermore closes the album with a riposte against the ‘nevermore’ of Quoth The Mockingbird and The Raven. Fittingly for an album that gives so much space to instrumentation, the record is wrapped up with an instrumental tune.
This is undoubtedly a winter record, and it perhaps relies too much on strict rhyming structure. However, the expressive voice and expansive instrumentation mark it out as an interesting release.
Cold by Mean Mary is out now on Woodrock Records.
Check out musiccloseup.com for more music news and reviews.