Theism is under assault today. God believers are seen as delusional. The ye’s of little faith have hops in their steps.
In turn, the Como Mamas, by trade and by belief, are gospel singers. The three of them whoop it up extremely, like an a cappella call-and-response chorus, their earthy hymns both stripped-down and super-sized. The hearing of what early 20th -century folklorists called “Negro religious songs” is a deep, beautiful experience, trust in Jesus or not.
Como is small-town Mississippi, where the Mamas (Ester Mae Smith and the sisters Angela Taylor and Della Daniels) live and wear church-choir robes. The three are tested each day they exist, and they sing in a natural, outbursting and unsophisticated manner.
The harmony is pleasing, the noise is joyful, and the vocal inflections are affirmative. They sing with slight rasps; smooth is not their thing. The occasional imperfections – a broken voice here, a throat-clearing there – are perfect.
Auto-Tune? That is what happens down at Clem’s Midtown Garage.
On Thank Him Enough, the Como Mamas sing “You don’t know how good God is to me.” But we have an idea.
Get an Understanding is the follow-up to Como Now: The Voices of Panola County, Mississippi, an eye-opening compilation of various artists (including the Como Mamas) from the Brooklyn-based, hipster-approved Daptone label.
The star of that label is Sharon Jones, a sass-and-shout dynamo and former prison guard who said of 2008’s Como Now: “It feels like home to me. It reminds me of being a little girl singing in church – stomping my feet and clapping along to the songs … it’s at the root of everything I do as a soul singer today.”
Indeed, to listen to Get an Understanding is to hear the underpinnings of modern music. Hold Me Jesus, with its swaggering rhythm, is soul-pop in style. Soon I Will Be Done, sung on the lone by lead vocalist Ester Mae Smith, is akin to torch balladry. Another solo, I’m Going Home to Jesus, is deliverance – heavy and hair-raising – and the highest of blues.
The album closes with a traditional Nobody’s Fault But Mine, done in a hypnotic, almost doo-wop manner. The Como Mamas do not overtly preach – their down-by-the-riverside relationship is their own. The sermon of Nobody’s Fault But Mine (usually credited to Blind Willie Johnson) is subtle: It is about guilt and struggle, and that if a promised land isn’t reached, it is one’s own failing. But when the Mamas sing “mine,” they mean yours too. The scriptures are there; you have been warned. It is as if to say: Do we have an understanding? Pause for thought is all they ask.
- Ron Sexsmith
- Three-and-a-half stars
Bob Wiseman has said that he produced Ron Sexsmith’s debut album Grand Opera Lane because he felt sorry for the young singer-songwriter, who in 1991 worked as a bike courier. Eleven albums later, there are those who still feeling sorry for Sexsmith – and it needs to stop. “Willow don’t weep for me now, I’m having a real good time,” he sings on Me, Myself and Wine, playfully brightened by curly clarinets and trad-jazz flairs. The album is wistful, but never melancholy, as Sexsmith looks at his life through some of the most listenable material of his career. Back of My Hand has the lilt and chunky lope of good McCartney. Nowhere to Go is about disappointment, but it buoys nevertheless Sexsmith, who may not achieved all the riches or acclaim some feel he deserves, advises against walking down If Only Avenue. His trajectory is enviable – salute him, dig him, do not cry for him. Brad Wheeler
The Flower Lane
- Three stars
If you make laid-back-sounding music in 2013 you’re supposed to play an acoustic guitar and have a big beard, or a bunch of drum machines and maybe a moustache. Matt Mondanile plays electric guitar in a mellow rock band called Real Estate and in a mellow rock band of his own called Ducktails, and has no facial hair, so peer pressure obviously doesn’t affect him. That’s arguably why Mondanile’s first Ducktails full-length sounds like nothing else out there. Clean, ringing guitars and Mondanile’s flat, affect-less vocals swirl and chase each other’s echoing tails, while the crisp rhythm section prods the songs forward. Throw in some ELO-style keyboards and some well-placed interruptions in the mood and you’ve got a supremely pleasant debut that challenges everything you think you know about rock that is soft. (Just don’t call it soft rock.) Dave Morris
All That Echoes
- Josh Groban
- Warner Music
- Two-and-a-half stars
With his sixth album, the boyish baritone continues to evolve from mere singer to singer/songwriter. And though the album still nods to the Bocelli-esque orchestral pop that earned Groban the nickname “opera boy,” most of the material relies as much on rock rhythm as lush strings. Not that Groban has gone Bono on us; Brave, the first single, doesn’t evoke Joshua Tree so much as suggest what might result were Andrew Lloyd Weber to compose U2: The Musical. But the rhythmic energy happily mitigates Groban’s self-serving vocal dramatics, while his frequent swoop into falsetto makes the earnest uplift of the lyrics all the more affecting. J.D. Considine
- Three stars
There is a resignation that runs through the songs of Mackenzie Scott, the quietly forceful Nashville singer-songwriter who records as Torres. She “cares too much,” but that is the only way for her to live. She hurts, but it is fine – “happens all the time.” In the longing, haunting style of Cat Power, Jessica Lea Mayfield or a softer-focus Patti Smith, on her debut album Scott sets despairing lyrics to backdrops that are sometimes grungy. Chains is dark, desperate and electro-tinged: “Feed me something real while I got youth left in my veins.” Yeah, it’s like that. But if she is starving for the truth, as the song goes, the listener is well fed. It is a selfless bargain well-struck, from an intriguing new artist who does what needs to be done. B.W.