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Karen Mantler: Business is Bad

John Kelman By

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It's been nearly two decades since Karen Mantler last released an album under her own name on the XtraWATT label belonging to her similarly coifed mother, pianist/composer Carla Bley, but she's been anything but idle. Work on Bley albums like Appearing Nightly (Watt, 2008), recordings by father Michael Mantler like Folly Seeing All This (ECM, 1993), and sessions with fellow singer/songwriter Robert Wyatt have dovetailed with the singer/pianist/harmonicist's collaborations with the Golden Palominos and Hal Wilner, as well as her own Pet Projects (Virgin, 2000), the final instalment in a series of albums about her cat, that began with My Cat Arnold (XtraWATT, 1988), Karen Mantler and Her Cat Arnold Get the Flu (XtraWATT, 1990) and Farewell (XtraWATT, 1996). All this, along with teaching, busking and other life experiences have made Business is Bad an album that speaks to the human condition with rare informality, refreshing honesty and a complete lack of naval-gazing, its lighthearted approach to the music seeming, at times, to be paradoxical to the subject matter; still, it remains completely endemic to Mantler's longstanding approach.

From hungry street people in New York's Central Park catching and eating everything from squirrels and frogs to ducks and rabbits ("Catch as Catch Can"), dealing with the loss of a friend ("Surviving You") and bill collectors ("Business is Bad"), to bad legal support ("I Can't Afford My Lawyer"), the challenges of bilingualism ("Speak French"), volcanic travel disruptions ("That Damn Volcano") and the trials and tribulations of songwriting ("My Magic Pen"), Business is Bad is the most intimate album of Mantler's career. Supported only by ex-Lounge Lizards guitarist/bass clarinetist Doug Wieselman and, back from Pet Projects, bassist Kato Hideki, Mantler echoes Robert Wyatt's stream-of-consciousness approach to songwriting, where a song's kernel can run from the tragic to the banal.

Mantler opines about the perils of improvisation on the tango-esque "My Solo," a song of near-haiku lyric brevity:

"Here is a song
that features me
on harmonica.

If I had words
I would sing,
not play a solo.

All I can do
is try my best.
Hope I don't get lost.

I find it hard
to improvise."

And yet, at nearly seven minutes, Mantler manages to assuage any qualms about her improvisational capabilities, layering spare harmonica lines over her supporting piano, with Hideki holding down the pulse and Wieseman providing a combination of color, rhythmic support ...and the occasional spartan but impressive solo of his own.

As much as Business is Bad is about generally unpleasant subjects, Mantler leaves a brief message at the end of the CD booklet that's hopeful: "Business Bad, Music Good." It's a message that she needn't have articulated explicitly; with Mantler's calm, almost detached vocal delivery and music that is often a paradoxically beautiful contrast to the subject at hand, Business is Bad may, indeed, be about bad things but it feels oh so good.

Track Listing: 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.

Personnel: Karen Mantler: vocals, harmonica, piano; Doug Wieselman: guitar, bass clarinet; Kato Hideki: bass.

Title: Business is Bad | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: XtraWATT/ECM

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