Unforgivably, Road May Rise, the latest studio outing by the Massachusetts’ duo disappeared into a black hole in my reviews pile, but has now been excavated for a somewhat overdue and well-deserved review. The follow-up to their Live In Manitoba album, and featuring studio versions of two new numbers included on that and with contributions from Peter Hart on steel and dobro, Doug Williamson on guitar, piano, mandolin and, along with Zack Ciras, upright bass, it opens with the cascading chords of the upbeat and positive ‘There Will Come A Day’ when “In a place you least expected and you’d never thought you’d find” then “Man will find a way to build a better palace out of sand” giving rise to “much brighter days ahead”. Perhaps the Biden campaign could adopt this.
Making its studio bow, fingerpicked and sung by Mandeville with pedal steel and harmonica, ‘As Long As It Takes’ recalled Van Zandt live but here John Prine colours are far more prominent as he sings of different potential choices and outcomes, concluding with “how many missed wishes burn just as bright/Another one hit wonder, another stolen thunder/It’s high time for another light to shine”.
And shine they do as, introed with mandolin and guitar, Richards takes to the mic to sing lead on unrequited love song ‘Honey Bee’ (“Wrote it all down in a letter/That I’d never thought I’d send/So I pose it as a question/Please don’t answer till you know”) and from there into Mandeville once more on the steel-shaded ‘Ain’t No Easy Answers’, a song written in response to the dark ages of the current US political situation when “the wolves are buying rounds for the whole town” and friends become enemies.
Richards on penny whistle, it’s pointedly followed by the magnificent hope-infused ‘Winds Of Change’, which speaks of a “fog so thick the truth becomes concealed” and, in doing your best while you’re here, calls “to defend the greatest virtues instead of empty causes”, using the metaphor of nature to talk of not meddling in the organic process because “It’s amazing what becomes of something man will leave alone”.
An easy rolling strum ‘Little By Little’ is another number that calls Prine to mind and again adopts a positive outloook (“Getting a little bit better with every day”) and not thinking that everything’s been settled and set in stone because “the seeds are always fallin, there’s no tellin’ where they’ll go”.
The other song revisited from the live album, ‘Hand I Hold’ is a simple acoustic love song from Mark to Raianne that harks to Guthrie and Appalachian folk influences, fondly crafted with mandolin and pedal steel and is, in turn, followed by another previously released number, this being ‘So Blue’ a song about perseverance which originally appeared on Mandeville’s 2010 solo album No Big Plans. Here it swaps the slightly jazz tinged bluegrassy shuffle for a folksy waltztime setting and reverses the vocals, with he providing harmonies to her lead.
The penultimate tracks is a cover, the gently country jogging ‘Don’t Let Me Come Home A Stranger’, originally recorded by another male/female duo, Robin and Linda Williams, back in 1984 (and subsequently covered by Mary Black and Tim O’Brien), Richards’ engaging twang taking prominence, Ciras on double bass and Hart soloing on pedal steel. Richards playing clarinet, it ends with the quite superb title track, another Prine-like track, written by Mandeville for May A Road Rise Up, a play by Shannon O’Neil produced for the Factory Theater in Chicago, closing out on another positive note about “Casting out meanness, shedding off sorrow” and breaking life’s vicious circles (“Would we carry on our shoulders all of the burdens and the blames/And continue round our circles til the last laps of our days”) and finding the tiny spark to light “a beacon in the dark”. This album is such a torch bearer.
Artists’ website: www.markandraianne.com
‘Road May Rise’ – live: