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Mayday : Old Blood

REVIEW: Mayday: Old Blood
7.22.2002 by Sean

Mayday : old blood [Saddle Creek, 2002]

Three words? Traditional music, mesmerized.

It's at the chorus of "Cinquefoils", Old Blood's first cut, that the song turns gently on its ear, shadows and reflections adjusting, to reveal exactly what Mayday is up to. Though the initial atmosphere recalls a distracted Sparklehorse - poetic but meandering - the chorus is the slightest of twists, and what's revealed is a heart of complex, melodic alt-folk. Suddenly the whisps of mandolin, the swirls of recorder, are lined up, focused, and sent coursing like melted ore into a grille of cohesive song. Mayday keeps foolin' with the listener: "Come Home" starts with another slow-moving verse, open chords leaving things vague and grey, but then- ah- there's that same kind of lazy folk hook: the singer (Ted Stevens) beckons the listener with a soft, sincere, James Taylor kind of delivery. When the rest of the band really begins to play, two-thirds through, the tinges of violin and pedal-steel show a near-twang pedigree. "Captain", perhaps the disc's best track, is a dark anthem of longing - snare pulses with organ and mandolin under a throaty, Songs:Ohia cry. As fiddle joins the voices, the song becomes something strong and pungent - a complete opposite from the fragile, ramshackle music-box of "Tone/Atone/Atonal".

Mayday has a fine pedrigree; singer-songwriter Ted Stevens, along with Mike and AJ Mogis, made up the better part of chamber-country outfit Lullaby for the Working Class, and a bevy of other players appear on Old Blood. You can hear it, too; the Mogis' nuanced production leaves things blackened but not heavy. Song after song rises from ash - colourful, alive. Though the group is strongest when it roars - at the close of "Lullaby for the Sleeping Elephant", during the better part of the epic, terraforming "Temple/Temporary/Extempore/Tempo" - but to truly resonate, all that the sleepier pieces need is a little more quiet intensity from Stevens. There's a taste of this in the whispered cadence of "Confession", where fellow Saddle Creek-er Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) lends his warbling vocals to a latin-tinged tune. The haunting opening to "Pilot", which follows, sets a gorgeous, misty scene, but again Stevens comes across weak - like a lazy Nick Cave (like Leonard Cohen, in fact). "Temple/Temporary/Extemporae/Tempo", on the other hand, is truly extraordinary; it lurches from chamber-rock to traditional airs, with crazed portions that recall Arab Strap and Dirty Three. At times it's almost as if there's a heavy-metal Wizard of Oz hiding behind the drone and acoustic accoutrements.

Old Blood is a large album, and its quieter moments are unable to pull the walls in, to raise the fire. When such attempts are abandoned, however, the scope and largesse of the disc resembles a fiery summer sunset, an gypsy carnival in the subway tunnel. There's death and rebirth here, amidst the guitar crackles and surges of effect, and in the dark, amidst the explosions and the sacrificial smoke, one can smell it.

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