TRACY BONHAM'S 'Masts of Manhatta' is a record on the horns of a dilemma. Torn between the 24/7 urban overload of Brooklyn (her former home) and the more tranquil environs of Woodstock where she mostly now resides since her marriage, it is the product of opposing forces and, as such, isn't always the easiest of listens.
In itself, that's fine. It's good to be challenged by a record that doesn't take the easy option and mostly that's the case with 'Masts of Manhatta'. Perhaps this is to be expected when you consider that Bonham's backing group on the sessions were Smokey's Roundup, a unit lead by former Beck/ Tom Waits guitarist Smokey Hormel, and they bring a suitably unorthodox, genre-dodging vibe to her arcane, but always gripping songs.
Opener 'Devil's Got Your Boyfriend' almost literally addresses the record's dichotomy. The track itself has a supple, creepy groove with stand-us bass, brushed drums and shakers supplementing Bonham's heady, almost rap-like delivery, although her graceful violin drags it in a different direction altogether. If I was pushed for a genre, I'd probably plump for Country-Noir, with Lisa Germano springing readily to mind.
So far, so appetite whetting, though it soon becomes apparent that Bonham, Hormel and co are comfortable wandering off down any number of beaten tracks. 'We Moved Our City To The Country' seems entirely autobiographical and is caught directly between the urban and the pastoral (“when we speak upon on cell phone, I hear a young sparrow...oh it's your ring tone”), while 'Big Red Heart' hedges its' bets with twiddly guitar figures, funky percussion and snatches of strings.
Elsewhere, Hormel's work with Tom Waits seems to have rubbed off. The bizarre 'Josephine' is built around a burlesque-style string riff, Eastern European violin and contains elements of the junkyard blues Waits has made his own. It morphs into a dirty polka which seems fitting for a tale of a carny carrying off a young girl. 'Your Night Is Wide Open', meanwhile, is initially a downbeat, Mexican-influenced outing before the band drive a clunking, wrecking ball blues into the side of it.
A couple of tracks don't work so well for me. 'You're My Isness' tries to marry a growling, JJ Burnel-style bassline with a lyric bigging up Gogol Bordello. Erm, come again? 'Reciprocal Feelings', meanwhile, is based upon the premise of Tracy being best friends with herself and that's as confusing an audio concept as it is on paper.
Thankfully, she has a couple of real beauts in reserve. 'In The Moonlight' is a slightly ditsy, but nonetheless engaging tale of a mother/daughter road trip set to a winsome country-flecked canter, while 'When You Laugh, the World Laughs With You' opens with a swirling string refrain akin to The Verve's 'Bittersweet Symphony' only to change tack completely. It has a lovely swing regardless, and a lyric referencing June and Johnny Cash and ultimately comes highly recommended.
'Masts of Manhatta', then, presents us with an intriguingly skewhiff take on the famous Manhattan skyline. Its' inherent battle 'tween city and country isn't anything like resolved by the time it winds down, but the exotic, folk-flavoured stew its' emotional ingredients throw together is nonetheless well worth tasting.
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