‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ – Mike Stevens

5 stars (out of 5)

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‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is one of those albums where, at first listen, you genuinely have no idea what’s coming next; more about that shortly, but some background first. Mike Stevens is a hugely respected harmonica virtuoso who has played the Grand Ole Opry over 300 times and has experimented widely with his playing techniques to create a unique style. He’s also recovering after a diagnosis of Lyme disease which left him virtually unable to play. It’s the kind of situation that can make you re-evaluate and hit the reset button, which is exactly what Mike has done with this album; he’s playing by feel rather than by experience and practice.

The album’s opening song, and the lead single, gives no clues about what’s coming up on the rest of the album. It’s, well, it’s jaunty; it’s played as an upbeat and offbeat reggae tune with a really positive message, a shiny, polished Polly Harris vocal and even a choir of children coming in at the end. It’s really uplifting but doesn’t even hint at what’s coming up. You have to expect the unexpected and the version of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ is a perfect example.

The 1976 original is in the style of a folk ballad told in seven lengthy verses and it’s all about the story. It’s been covered before, in a pretty leaden version, by the Dandy Warhols, but Mike’s interpretation is very different; it’s an instrumental where the arrangement follows the narrative flow of Gordon Lightfoot’s original. The song starts peacefully with the violining guitar part evoking seagull cries and builds steadily towards the clamour of the fatal storm before the closing calm of remembrance of the dead sailors. It works as a stand-alone piece, but it’s even better if you know the original song. Another example of the unexpected is ‘Amazing Grace’, which opens in a Hendrix Star-Spangled Banner’ style before calming down into a more peaceful version of the hymn. It’s stunning harp playing, technically and creatively.

And you could write endlessly about the creativity that runs like a pulse through the album. ‘Orange Blossom Special’ paints an aural picture with harp and guitar of a train pulling out of the station and building up to cruising speed while the closing track, ‘Put Your Phone Down’, is a freeform harmonica improvisation punctuated by short, almost random, spoken lines exhorting us to celebrate life without the filters of technology. And those are just my personal highlights.

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is a stunningly creative and innovative album with a surprise around every corner; you think you’ve heard everything the album has to offer, then in comes the zither on the cinematic ‘Jesse’s Request’. This is a genuinely original album.

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is released on May 20th on Stony Plain Records (SPCD1452).

Here’s a link to the video for ‘Livin’ in Sarnia’, featuring Cory James Mitchell:

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