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On his myspace site, Mark Bates seems such a sweet, gently spoken young man, it's hard to believe that this is the same person who has produced an album that so melodramatically deals with all the darker sides of life, as chronicled by generation after generation of folk song writers. His liner notes suggest a troubled personal past - no details - for which this explosion of music has been a catharsis; indeed there is the suggestion that these dark tales of murder, pain and depression are directly inspired by his own life. Well if so, he seems to have seen way too much of that sort of thing for one lifetime. Mind you, sometimes it's the cheeriest of people who focus on these things in their imaginative lives.
Teaching himself guitar and piano to give himself the tools with which to express himself he has paid close enough attention to his masters - Townes van Zandt, Tom Waits, Neil Young, to name three - to show he has learnt how to put a song together, to give it a flow and a hook that will lodge in the brain. Clearly, too, there is a degree of experimentation as different forms and arrangements are tried out. Clean Through, which opens the album and tells of devotion in the face of emotional pain, sounds like white soul, Steve Dawson style. Mark has a good voice for it, the stretch for the high notes sounding like emotional intensity. Forbidden Love, also quite a soulful track, has a modern alt-country feel to it but the guitar break for the middle eight could have been lifted from Guns'nRoses or some such band and sounds slightly bizarre. Daisy is a blues amble with a country lyric: "I got the blues/ If your wife was a whore/ Well wouldn't you?", whilst Death Sucks has a vaudevillian air with the banjo, trumpet and clarinet fronting the arrangement. That arrangement in itself suggests he's laughing at his own morbid obsessions, but make of it what you will. His one cover here is Townes Van Zandts's Flyin Shoes ("won't be long/till I'm trying on/my flyin shoes"). It's not a bad cover at all, but all this gloom makes me want to put an arm round his shoulders and encourage him to find the bright side.
The absolute stand-out track is A Drunkard's Holiday; the drunkard in question has his life fall apart around him and this song is his declaration of intention to make a dramatic public demonstration of his anguish. I'd be surprised if you don't wince the first time you hear this, as I did, at the unflinching bitterness of it all. Often , in song, you're hearing the voice of an observer but this is the voice of a man seeking out how far down he can go, and it's remarkable stuff for a young fellow to write. I suppose when you're young you're more able to see the world in all or nothing terms; as you get older, no matter what life has dealt you, you're more likely to see the world in a steadier, day after day, sort of a way.
There's loads of good, interesting stuff going on, here on Down The Narrow. I like Mark Bates' soulful singing, his use of piano based songs and his intensely personal and honest approach to writing; he's serious about his art, which bodes really well for the future; I'd say that Down The Narrow is too disparate for me to love it in it's entirety but I reckon he's around for the long haul and I'm already looking forward to what comes next.
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