Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cutler Goes Rhode Island ‘Red’ on New CD

I have to start with a disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of Mark Cutler’s music. His well-crafted, thoughtful songwriting, his biting-yet-melodic guitar playing, even his Petty-meets-Dylan-meets-Tom-Verlaine vocal style, has struck a chord with me since the day I first saw his then-new band, The Raindogs, at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge back in the spring of 1988.

The problem with being an evangelist for a particular musician plays out in one of two ways: Either you’re so smitten with everything the artist does that you can’t see the ebb and flow that is inevitably a part of any creative career, or you have such high expectations that you’re all-too-easily disappointed. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve leaned more toward the latter.

When it comes to the Rhode Island singer-songwriter’s new CD, Red, however, I’m happy to report that I’m far from disappointed. In fact, it’s a great record. Maybe not quite the best thing Cutler’s ever done in his 25-plus year career, but pretty darn close. Not only is it right up there with his finest solo work and the pinnacle of The Raindogs’ and The Schemers’ catalogs, it more than holds its own alongside the best rootsy, Americana music out there today.

As this is the first new full-length CD of Cutler compositions since the second Dino Club release, Bright Screen Wide, in 2004, and Mark’s first solo offering since 2000’s Mark Cutler and Lexington 1-2-5 album, it’s a momentous occasion for fans of his heartfelt, hope-and-melancholy-filled music.

In the few weeks that I’ve been listening to Red, it has continued to grow on me. Despite my familiarity with half of the CD’s dozen songs – from earlier, home-recorded versions previously posted on Mark’s MySpace page – when I first heard the new record as a whole, I was struck by the mellowness of the affair. Upon subsequent listening, however, what I first perceived as restraint, revealed itself to be richly nuanced, cinematically evocative songwriting. Cutler’s airy acoustic guitar and contemplative lyrics are adorned by conspicuous mandolin, accordion and piano embellishments. That’s not to say there aren’t some penetrating electric guitar moments on Red. There are, but they intercede intermittently, rather than dominate the affair. (Think more Gas Boy, than Raindogs or Schemers.)

Overall, there’s a sense of maturity and understated confidence to the proceedings. Pristine production, subtle instrumentation (great, clean-tones and masterfully layered sounds) and tight arrangements buoy emotive vocals, which are at times soulful, bluesy or rootsy.

Cutler employs a familiar troupe of musicians, prominently featuring long-time guitar compadre Emerson Torrey (this time co-producing, engineering and adding piano and backing vocals), fellow Schemers accordionist/keyboardist Richard Reed and bassist Jim Berger, as well as Mike Tanaka from The Dino Club on bass, along with a large cast of other contributors. The musicianship is top notch all around, with David Richardson’s mandolin, in particular, playing a pivotal part on several songs.

But, most of all, Red emphasizes Cutler’s skill as a singer-songwriter. Somebody once said about the writer Raymond Carver that nobody captures the darkness and hopefulness of everyday America better. I think the same can be said of Cutler’s songs. The predominantly slow and mid-tempo tunes on Red are often pensive, but there are dashes of faith and optimism throughout, frequently accented by Cutler’s characteristic exhortations to keep on trying.

Red is available on CD from 75orLess Records, and through iTunes and Rhapsody starting May 7. Cutler will be playing an official record release party at Nick-a-Nees in Providence on May 8. I know I’ll be there.

Hope in the Tracks

Mark Cutler’s new CD might be Red, but its palette covers much of the musical spectrum. Here’s a brief song-by-song rundown:

Vampires – Based on the song title alone, you might think: “nice band-wagon jumping.” But while this reflective exhortation to resiliency and perseverance does employ an oh-so-au-courant vampire metaphor, its musical and lyrical depth belie that notion. Musically, it sets a compelling stage for what’s to come with baritone guitar melodies, chiming mandolin, rich vocal choruses and a folk-rock-pop sheen that hint at both Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams in tempo and mood, but remain wholly Mark Cutler in theme and sound. A great album opener and potential single.

• Cousin Mary’s New Car – With a bit more bounce in vocal meter than the haunting melodies of the opening track, this imagistic character study depicts a carney-like cast of fringe-dwelling homeys. Musically mellow, this song is also driven by mandolin, accordion and Springsteen-like vocals and lyrics. It’s a bit reminiscent in lyrical motif to “Under the Rainbow” from The Raindogs’ Lost Souls.

• We Shall Always Remain Friends – The tempo perks up a tad for this touching tribute to the strength of friendship – either with a former lover or as brotherly devotion. Acoustic guitar joins the mandolin and shakers in musical dominance on this one. In no way derivative, but perhaps a little suggestive of the kind of thing The Wallflowers or Steve Earle might do.

• Just a Paycheck Away – After the mellow impression of the first three tunes, the electric guitar melody leaps out of the speakers right from the get-go on this one. It’s a timely and fitting “Worried Man Blues” for the Great Recession. Bluesy vocals are paired with the more aggressive guitar, making it perhaps the most Raindogs reminiscent track on the CD. It’s a quintessential Cutler song and one of the best on this collection.

• Hovering – This catchy tune changes the pace yet again, introducing a lazy country-and-western feel, with more prominent baritone guitar melodies, mandolin and an electric guitar that magically suggests pedal steel at points. Lyrically, the question remains: Is the hovering protective or obsessive?

• Doc Pomus Ghost – This titular nod to the early white blues singer and Songwriters Hall of Fame member (co-author of hits for Elvis, Ray Charles and others) is the most bluesy tune on the album. A tale of longing (to the point of delusion), it features some menacing electric slide guitar that gives it a kick-ass oomph not found elsewhere on the record. Knowing that Mark, like one of his heroes, Bob Dylan, is a discerning student of music, I have to wonder whether this song – with its “hidden charms” refrain and fierce slide guitar solo – isn’t also a tip of the hat to Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon.

• You Know What to Do – In another effective juxtaposition to the preceding track, the somber tones of this song are forged by acoustic guitar, a haunting cello, mandolin and a ringing vocal chorus about a corrupted soul. One of Red’s most engaging mellow tunes.

• Jumpin’ Time – The beat hops back up again for this Cajun-meets-jump-blues tale of things not always being as they seem. Another one of the many real highlights on Red, the Dylanesque R-n-B feel is electric and percussive, but the spikey mandolin melody contrasts nicely with the funky context.

• You Can’t Give It Away – This may be the album’s tune that is most reminiscent of the softer side of The Dino Club (think “Isn’t It Fine”) and Cutler’s previous solo albums, though the beautiful cello lines (while not Johnny Cunningham’s fiddle) do evoke the mellower side of The Raindogs, too. Piano flourishes weave in and out of the layered acoustic string sounds supporting the sympathetic vocal. Like “You Know What to Do,” this is melancholy done right – in the vein of one of Cutler’s all-time classics, “Up in the Air” from Gas Boy.

• Ain’t Been Born – This slow blues tune rides gospel organ embellishments, understated slide guitar and strong soulful vocals that I can almost imagine Candi Stanton or maybe even Aretha singing. Another of the somewhat Dylanesque moments on the CD, this fully-realized song offers a different lyrical spin by taking the wind out of false hope. Kind of a slow burner, it has gradually grown to be one my favorite songs on Red.

• I Hear Your Car – This is a good enough tune, but the least-remarkable one on the CD. Somewhat “generic Cutler” to my ears, it’s the kind of thing you sense that Mark could write in his sleep. (Other artists should be so lucky!)

• Miss Connected – One of the CD’s most poppy, mid-tempo tunes ends the affair on a high note. There’s some nice electric lead guitar playing, a very strong vocal chorus and a lyrical narrative that paints an engaging picture of a past love affair that went awry. “A pop song crossed with the extreme / A love song denied, but almost redeemed” … “Clocks just don’t turn back, nor can we” ... indeed.

I have to admit to wishing that Mark had included “Kill the Devil,” one of the real standout songs among the home recordings he has streamed in recent years on MySpace. It’s a great tune – one of my favorite Cutler compositions of the past decade – but I can see why he might have decided that it didn’t quite fit the vibe of the rest of the CD. Maybe next time. Until then, I’ll be happily enjoying what is Red, right along with the best of Cutler’s past output.

This older YouTube video for the home-recorded version of “Jumpin’ Time,” updated on Cutler’s new CD Red, shows how, in a fairly low-tech way, you can create a compelling complement to a good song. Some great found images put to effective use here.


  1. great article and critique, and thanks for including the video

  2. Excellent, comprehensive review. Always great to see someone championing Mark's music.