Friday, April 11, 2008

Resurrected: Mark Pickerel's Cody's Dream

This review appears in Wireless Bollinger.

Mark Pickerel is a wanderer. He was the original drummer in the band Screaming Trees, whose singer, Mark Lanegan, has recently reinvigorated his career through the Gutter Twins. Pickerel has also strapped on the guitar for various musicians, appearing on songs by Brandi Carlile and Neko Case. Cody’s Dream is the second album for his most recent project, dubbed Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands, the troubadour bringing together no less than six other musicians, along with a handful of additional guests. The result is an album that’s heavily populated, but somewhat detached.

Stylistically, this is very much an alt-country record. The title is an allusion to an imagined character that embarks on a journey. The album cover contains a silhouetted house, with a train billowing smoke as it passes by. The back is even more explicit, with a lone figure, baggage in tow, standing forlornly between rows of leafless trees and naked power lines. But if one opens up the tri-fold packaging, a more complete picture emerges. Black and white photos of a rapturous crowd sit behind vintage ads that declare, “Play Guitar In 7 Days Or Get Your Money Back.” It’s unclear whether Cody’s seeking rock stardom; but a single photo of Pickerel, bathed in blue light and with guitar in hand, suggests that he’s still chasing the dream.

Perhaps reading this far into the packaging is a mistake. However, since the album is supposedly a narrative, there’s something to be said for context. Themes of travel, loneliness and abandoned relationships filter through, perhaps as much autobiographical as imaginary. Still, the narrative style offers a certain distance, and Pickerel is a skilled storyteller. His lyrics flow amidst the stream of guitars and percussion, and he sings with conviction that his story is worth telling.

There’s a consistency to the album, aside from the tempo changes. The National’s Boxer comes to mind, although Pickerel’s subject matter is less invested, substituting personal intensity for more dispassionate observation. Unfortunately, Cody’s Dream doesn’t resonate as much as a result. But from a purely aesthetic standpoint, it is easy on the ears – there’s a dark beauty to Pickerel’s croon and the melancholy of the instrumentation.

It’s difficult to rank this album without a wide body of knowledge about country music. It’s reasonable to say that fans of Neko Case, or even those that are flocking to the Gutter Twins, will not be drawn in easily. The genre remains an acquired taste, and it would be inaccurate to say that Pickerel differentiates himself to the point where he exceeds its musical boundaries. But for those who give the album a chance, there’s much to enjoy.


MP3: Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands - Cody's Dream
MP3: Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands - Let Me Down Easy
MySpace: Mark Pickerel
Official Site: Mark Pickerel

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