Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Timothy Monger

Very infrequently in this space do profiles focus on a solo artist. Generally, this is a place for bands and multi-person projects. There have been a few exceptions (here, here and here), but my tastes trend towards tandems. Yet today's review will mark one such exception, the sophomore release from Timothy Monger, one half of the Monger brother-led northern rock outfit, Great Lakes Myth Society, who are currently on hiatus. Monger's The New Britton Sound was released last Tuesday on his own Northern Detective label.

In much the same manner that his larger band's material blended rock, American, country and folk to form what they dubbed "northern rock" – a direct counterpoint to the more popular southern rock branding popularized by acts such as The Allman Brothers Band and Lynard Skynard – Monger's independent work features the same mix of subtle musical influences and localized narrative, unsurprising since he was the Myth Society's chief songwriter. That sound is apparent from the dawning banjo tones of "The Lark," a midtempo affair which offers an ideal palate for Monger's high, light vocals stretching across a barren roadway at daybreak. The two verse track is further enlivened by Matt Collar's trumpet piece, which serves as its chorus.

Even more in line with Monger's earlier Myth Society catalog is the follow-up and first single, "North Side of the Road." It's tableau is littered with the signposts of rural Michigan, Monger's native land. Besides the depiction's of the quiet town with its cornfields, tornado sirens and airfields, his sketch becomes all the more pronounced in the second stanza, noting:

"and off to the west side is a mill, in a railroad town /Population 500 people, it's hard to make time for other people"

Whatever commentary Monger's offering here isn't quite obvious, but that's not essential inside the boundaries of the laid-back vibe, again flavored by Collar's trumpet. Indeed, it seems that no matter how bleak a portrait Monger attempts to depict, his vocal delivery streams across as relentlessly positive, making his accounts that much more bearable. That reality is all the more highlighted in the subsequent "Witches," despite its forlorn title. His self-harmonizing here contains all the lighthearted resistance his lyrics proclaim as futile. And despite his efforts to engender a more ominous scene with a floating organ and rusty banjo plucks, none of it comes across as all that haunting, which isn't a bad thing.

"When I'm a Happy Drunk" is more intentionally upbeat at the outset, but gradually devolves into melancholy as his character drinks in periods of loneliness and anger, and their resulting emotional consequences. Still, the uillean pipes (think a blend of bagpipes and harmonica) attributed to Tyler Duncan on the liner notes only serve to tack the mood to pensive and wistful rather than defeatist and resigned, despite Monger's best efforts.

Monger finally decides to abandon the glum outlook by the time "Guitar Case" announces the 10-track record's midpoint, instead tracking more towards realism. He describe the guitar case, that once functioned as a "diplomat to the world" as now a collection of "stickers and cracks, held together by smoke." More intellectually humorous is "Mining Accident," where people in the midst of unfortunate events – the title's reference, a hurricane cellar, a state of anarchy – can "really connect" and "have a good talk," protected from the chaos outside in a cocoon, rather than being buried alive. The cut's slight backbeat from John Fossum only reinforces Monger's tongue-in-cheek perspective here.

A late highlight is "Friends and Foes," again recalling the heart of the Myth Society material, which builds steadily through its course of just-under three minutes. Should his larger group return from its time away, the number would be a fitting match with "Isabella County, 1992." At the same time, "Broken Barrows" is sparse and sullen, although it does feature some solid lyricism such as "away from man's light on this trolley of lost souls." After a similarly somber "Song Clerk," the closing "The Classics" advances with the same sort of trembling electric guitar riff found at the outset of the Myth Society's poppy "Across the Bridge." And while this number reaches the set-closing triumph of that effort, Monger's ode to rock nostalgia is affirming and muscular by it's third verse, and strikes just the right note to close the proceedings.

Come for: "North Side of the Road"
Stay for: "The Classics"
You'll be surprised by: "Witches"

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