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.