Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Music Review: Hell and Heroes Vol 1

Hell & Heroes Vol. 1 by Mean Mary & the Contrarys
Woodrock Records - meanmary.com

review by Sienna Santerre

rating: * * * * (four stars)

Mary James, known more widely as Mean Mary, is also known more widely as a single act and as a banjo virtuoso. On this EP of four songs she is joined by her band, the Contrarys—forming a sort of folk-rock power trio.

Ms James seems to have a bit of a weakness for long story-songs. All four songs run in the four to four and a half minute length. This length also, admittedly, gives her the opportunity to exhibit her considerable instrumental chops. I can't say I am particularly taken with the stories in the first two offerings here, 'Penelope Rose' and 'Fugitive'—particularly the latter, which seems a tad cliche. The drums are also mixed rather high. Perhaps that was seen as more 'rock and roll' but it might have been good to give Mary more room for her vocals and instrumental work.

Both of which are quite good. Let's face it, folks are going to listen to these songs because of Mean Mary, not the Contrarys, competent though they may be. She has a well-deserved reputation on the banjo (mostly played in a more-or-less bluegrass style); here she shows herself a master of lead guitar (and pretty much any other instrument she picks up). The arranging is top-notch as well, vocals included.

The third song, 'Seven League Shoes,' is (to me) the gem here, with Mary's vocals atop an insistent bed of banjo and bass. The indie-rock vibe to this one that goes over well—shades of the past are there but it is also up to date Americana. Mean Mary's well-deserved reputation as a high-speed banjoist are very much evident in the closing minute of the song!

'Sparrow Alone,' the final offering, is a song we have heard on one of Mean Mary's solo albums ('Alone'). It ties in with her novel (co-written with Jean James), 'Sparrow Alone on the Housetop.' A pretty good book, by the way. A melancholy piece, quoting a folk melody, it is well realized and, again, showcases Mary's playing.

All in all, 'Hell and Heroes Vol 1' is an excellent showcase, well-played, well-arranged. Are the songs themselves well-written? Perhaps not are truly memorable but they are a cut above what you'll find on many successful albums out there. I feel confident in giving a 'very good' ranking and a recommendation.

note: Mary James is the niece of Stephen Brooke, who runs this site. So add any grains of salt you find necessary.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Book Review: The Pioneers

THE PIONEERS by James Fenimore Cooper, a book review by Stephen Brooke

***** 5 stars

One could make an argument that “The Pioneers” was the first great American novel. It is certainly the first important one. Before Hawthorne, before Melville, Cooper gives us the American voice and sensibility (though with the obvious stylistic influence of Scott).

Yes, it is wordy. Cooper is always wordy and early Cooper even more so. The novel is not quite historical fiction in the sense some of the other Leather-Stocking books are; it is set in the time of the author’s own youth and draws on his memories of Cooperstown. Nor is it an adventure in quite the same sense. Natty Bumppo, Leather-Stocking himself, has a less central role, though he does stand as symbol of the end of an age, helping hold the story together.

The closing of the frontier, the felling of forest, the peopling of what was wilderness, is a central theme—but not the plot. Cooper knew better than do that. The theme is attached to a fairly conventional sort of story. We can all figure out who young Edwards, the closest thing to a main male protagonist, truly is. But the plot is set against the panorama of civilization expanding into the wilderness, both the good and the bad of it. Cooper was certainly a conservationist before the word existed.

The story concerns itself not only with the trees felled but the human lives impacted, including those of the Native Americans. Yet it is most certainly not all gloom. There is plenty of humor and maybe just a little too much description of everyday frontier life. It is one of those novels that captures its time and place—a newly-born nation finding itself and perhaps blundering a bit in the process. A classic and worth the highest ranking (though maybe just barely).

This review has appeared in a slightly different form at GoodReads and at Stephen Brooke's blog (Stephen Brooke Author)

Thursday, January 12, 2023

New Blog, Old Name

I've used the Eggshell Boats name elsewhere and have owned the domain for a while (I shall probably point it here now, though there is no guarantee I'll keep it). Anyway, this is a new blog for me, to go along with the Arachis Press one I already maintain at Blogger. I had a very long-running blog here, The Lucky Lad, which I finally deleted last year (for better or worse—no use in regrets now!). That was a personal, catch-all sort of blog, which I no longer need.

This one? Sort of a magazine, maybe. I shall definitely post reviews here. Beyond that, we'll just have to see.