Mark Gorman Album Review: Mockingbird

* Mark Gorman * Mockingbird  * Rockin’ G Music *


Way back in the final year of the previous century, scribing for an ancient webzine called Rockzilla, yours truly wrote the following lines as intro to a review on Mark Gorman’s Wind and Ages record:

Old West troubadour and new age balladeer wrapped in the spiritual embers of memory’s burning campfires, Mark Gorman is an artist exactly like and completely different from any others you’ve heard. If the test was to describe his music in a word, the word would undoubtedly be “smooth.” The test, however, would be unequivocally flawed because, as with the real live cowboy, one word cannot equate the sum.

In 2012, with the release of his latest record, Mockingbird, Gorman proves that even an ink-stained reviewer can get it right now and again.  Wind and Ages, along with Mark’s other previous album, All Night Long, centered on storytelling.  Often the stories were of the cowboy and Western variety, fitting fare from an artist who’s paid his dues breaking and training horses on his north Texas ranch.  But the cowboy life is only one facet of Gorman’s multi-talented arc through this world, and with Mockingbird, he stretches his range considerably.  Longtime Gorman fans are aware of his widely varied endeavors, but just in case he’s new to you, here’s a short and incomplete list of his musical activities:

  • 30-plus years making music
  • Authored and directed ten full length Broadway-style musicals (all successful, by the way)
  • Conducted at Dallas’ own Morton H. Meyerson symphony center
  • Wrote, recorded, and co-produced a Christian/Gospel album in the mid ‘80s, partnering with Randy Adams (Randy’s work with Dallas Holm and Praise is familiar to fans of the Christian Contemporary Music genre)
  • Bachelor of Fine Arts/Music Education degree from Stephen F. Austin University

Again, that’s a short list.  Referenced here solely to underscore that whenever Mark Gorman’s name is on a project, there are a few things you can bet the farm on.  First, it’s going to be well done and professional.  Second, Gorman’s guitar work is going to drop your jaw.  And finally, while it’s a given that the stories will be compelling and ring true, the musical path that delivers them is likely to have more twists and turns than a San Francisco hillside street.

All of that is showcased in fine detail on Mockingbird.  It’s as beautiful and seemingly simplistic a record as anyone in the country will release in 2012.  At first listen you may find that actually working against the album; every note and chord and rhythm is so precisely in its place that the unengaged may find the surface glossy and without toe holds.  There are no jagged edges on this record, no ringing riffs to slam your battered soul against.  So if you’re the type that needs rowdy and loud to get your blood going, this is not the record for you.  That said, if you still believe in sunsets and pitchers of fresh sweet tea and bluebonnets and horses and the healing waters of the Guadalupe or the Brazos, you might find this the one record you can’t get out of your truck. (or iPod, or whatever it is you use to listen to music these days)   The Western and cowboy angle is largely absent here, marking a departure from Gorman’s earlier works.  There are exceptions, the Bob Wills inspired and Asleep At the Wheel worthy “Fair to Midland” chief among them.  But the tendency for Gorman here is to get more personally introspective and avoid much of the musical style fans might expect.  It’s an interesting experiment, and often highly successful.  The title cut’s a terrific example:  its lush arrangement, fiddle, and stunning acoustic guitar work provide a canvas not to be trifled with.  The lyric, on the other hand, takes the mockingbird and his legend and turns them into an intensely personal and evocative exercise in self-inspection.  On various levels, its lessons of both hope and recrimination where love is concerned strike home with a beautiful vengeance.

Gorman shows off his less serious (but no less polished or musically accomplished) side deep in the track list with cuts like “Matiba Biba Shinbone,” unleashing both an electric guitar and a growling vocal that are not necessarily in sync with the rest of the album.  It’s an interesting departure, one that works well and serves to effectively mix up the atmosphere.  “What Can I Say?” follows hard on its heels, featuring a bluesy, swampy feel that’s downright relentless.

But the majority of the songs here are complexly and deceivingly simple – primarily acoustic, devoid of screaming Telecasters and the usual Red Dirt nasal angst.  Gorman’s vocal often reflects styles popular in the ballads and folk/gospel songs of the ‘70s.  Think John Denver, B.J. Thomas, Jimmy Buffett, that vein.  It’s an effective mode of delivery, particularly when the subject matter is relevant.  And whether Mark’s talking about distanced yet committed lovers in “Our Star” or a man done with it all in “2 Umbrellas,” relevance resonates.   There’s not a song here that anyone drawing breath can’t relate to; they’re all centered on universal truths amplified by filtering them through specific locales.

Mockingbird, top to bottom, is the most technically proficient and perfected record that’s graced my mail slot this year.  It’s possible, in fact, to enjoy the record simply on the strength and vibrancy of the production values.  But don’t let the highly polished sheen throw you off the scent.  There’s meat on the bone here, and if you’re open to an accomplished songwriter unconcerned with genre lines or expectations, this record’s likely to become a staple in your go-to playlist.

Mark Gorman is himself a terrific example of a modern day Renaissance man.  His interests, education, life’s work, and experiences are as varied as the topography of Texas herself.  And like the Rangers of old, Gorman can ride that range and adapt to its vagaries with ease.  He’s a terrific musician and highly effective singer.  But it’s his adaptability and willingness to spread his wings and explore that sets him apart from so many of his Lone Star contemporaries these days.

Worth your time. for more detail.

~ Dave Pilot

Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.

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