Composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Karen Mantler's fifth release as a leader, Business is Bad, is a set of nine intimate sketches of everyday life. Delivered in Mantler's unique musical style, the pieces range from the whimsical "My Magic Pencil" to the elegiac "Surviving You" and everything in-between.
Mantler does not so much sing these engaging soliloquies as she does hum them to herself. On "Catch as Catch Can," she laments the plight of the homeless and the hungry with plenty of pathos. Dark humor laces the evocative refrains as do elements of mordant satire, directed at society. Her melancholic and broad-toned harmonica often takes centerstage, underscoring the tragic aspects of her tales.
Her vocals may be an acquired taste but they are integral to her superb musicianship both as a writer and a performer. The tango-esque "My Solo," for instance, opens with Mantler's resonant piano vamps over Kato Hideki's deep reverberating bassist strings. Mantler, then, thinks out loud in crisp, poetic lines before launching into a passionate harmonica improvisation that shimmies over Hideki's and guitarist/clarinetist Doug Wieselman's languid melody. With Mantler switching to piano in a sensual dance with Hideki, Wieselman's melancholic guitar closes the tune on a nostalgic note.
Hideki's intense lyricism is best heard on the dramatic "Speak French," where his solo has a strong western classical flair. The song opens with a chant-like bilingual conjugation of the verb "to be"a statement simultaneously profound and quotidian.
Wieselman, meanwhile showcases his agility and organic tone when he takes centerstage on bass clarinet for the cabaret-like title track, while his moody, mystical phrases conclude the disc on "That Damn Volcano."
Mantler uses her signature blend of various genres to construct a cohesive, intelligent and charming work with Business is Bad. It may not be for mainstream consumption, nor for purists' ears, but it is a provocative album that brims with artistic originality and creative ingenuity.
Catch as Catch Can; My Magic Pencil (Wrote This Melody); Speak French; Wintertime;
Surviving You; Business is Bad; I Can't Afford My Lawyer; My Solo; That Damn Volcano.
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