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Album Review

MARK BATES
Night Songs

I was hooked on the sound of Ghost Tonight, the lead-off track of Mark Bates' new album Night Songs right off. There was something about the choogling rhythm and the smooth vocals, especially the harmonies , which caught my ear. There was a strange mix of the sixties (say, B.J. Thomas's Billy & Sue but without the trademark Thomas vocals) and today which I find intriguing. Maybe it's the density or the AM radio sensibility, but whatever it is, I expected to be humming it in grocery lines or out on walks. But that Bates guy threw me a curve. Rather than the harmony-driven Ghost Tonight, I find myself playing Lucinda in my head at the oddest times, the first line of the chorus, “I remember Lucinda...”, playing over and over and I have no idea why. There isn't anything special about it, I don't think, and yet it is like an invasive species taking over my brain. I shouldn't like it that much, but evidently I do. It's like falling in love and not noticing it until she's gone. I'm finding that the more I listen, the more I love, but not until it's over. Does that make sense?

Maybe the best albums are not supposed to make sense sometimes. I mean, I'm always telling people that if you really love a song, you should remember it, know who wrote it, and yet if you asked me right now to name the songs on this album, I couldn't. I might get three, but I don't think much more than that. I will get there, though. I have listened to Night Songs first thing every morning for the past couple of weeks and it is slowly sinking in. When I first heard some of the songs, they made a bit of an impression--- enough to make me listen more. Now, they (and I mean each and every one) are working their ways into my DNA.

As I said, Ghost Tonight was an automatic for me. I love melody and harmony and there is plenty here. If you want to rock a little, Simple Love does that, with maybe a wisp of Tom Petty and a tad of Elvis Costello. Smile, with its intro piano almost out of the Stephen Foster songbook and outstanding offsetting chorus, is as good an example of Bates' emotion as is on the album unless you count No One There, a slow and introspective bundle of loneliness and an odd despair which is not really despair but something else just short of it. Bates shows attitude on The Fool That I Am, a mellow rocker not unlike those Greg Laswell had on his outstanding Through Toledo album.

Truth is, each song lives within itself here. The songs are solid and, for once, the sequence seems quite secondary. I can't believe I'm even saying that, but it is true. For once, the King of Sequence admits that songs can live alone, inside its own bubble. And Bates peppers Night Songs with so many which bring other songs to mind that it might be a bad thing except that he does it so damn well that you don't mind the familiar. In fact, you begin to embrace the it because it is so comfortable and it isn't until after a few listens that you even notice that you don't hear the familiar anymore. Just Bates. And he is enough.

I found during my searches on the Net that Bates gained a lot of media attention in the past for his songwriting prowess. After hearing this, I believe it well-deserved. The guy is a monster songwriter. And he can sing.

An aside: That pedal steel on some of these songs? Straight out of the Phil McJunkins playbook. You know! The Georgian Company? Well, you should know. McJunkins gets a sound out of the pedal steel that few do. Except the guy who plays on Night Songs. I have got to find out who he is. Like McJunkins, he is a musician to follow.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.


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