“Alone” – Mean Mary

4 stars (out of 5)

0

Mean Mary (Mary James) is a renowned multi-instrumentalist and banjo virtuoso, but that only scratches the surface of her talent. She’s also an accomplished songwriter, working on her own and with her mother Jean James (who co-wrote half of the songs on the album). “Alone” is Mean Mary (spoiler alert, I‘ve met her and she’s not really mean at all) actually alone with her banjo, guitar and banjitar, which is exactly what you think it is. The title works on several different levels; it’s a solo performance, but it’s also about the loneliness everyone has been experiencing in recent months and the loneliness of the hard life of a touring musician. Before you get the impression “Alone” is a gloomfest, it has its lighter moments, musically and lyrically.

Mary’s sense of fun shines through in a couple of adaptations of traditional tunes. The blues “Nine Pound Hammer” is updated to “Nine Pound Banjo” while “Little Cindy” gives Cindy a bit of a flirtatious edge as the banjo playing edges into jazz territory. The call and response of the gospel-flavoured “What About Today?” is subverted by a calypso-inflected banjo part that again adds a sense of fun to the song.

Of the more serious songs, “Big Tour Bus” is a look into the totally unglamorous world of a solo touring artist on the road; it’s a bleak and harrowing story that raises the question of why anyone would show such dedication. It’s powerful stuff. The last two songs on the album move away from the humour, nostalgia and road-weariness that dominate the album. “Breathless” is Mary’s take on the Bonnie and Clyde narrative, with the two messages that the wrong turning is all too easy to take and that the end isn’t glamorous at all. “We Never Hear the Song” is a banjo-accompanied anthem to the environment, hinting at the greater purpose behind all of it; the musical arrangement whose complexity we can never comprehend.

The variety of styles across the album’s songs is breath-taking as Mary demonstrates her songwriting versatility and virtuoso picking. There’s gritty realism, unsentimental nostalgia, compelling storytelling and humour in abundance. It’s hard to believe at end of ten songs that the only ingredients are one voice and a couple of instruments.

“Alone” is out now on Woodrock Records.