File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.
Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.
They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.
This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.