Karen Mantler: Business Is Bad (XtraWATT/14)

Business Is Bad

Karen Mantler
Business Is Bad

Karen Mantler vocals, harmonica, piano
Doug Wieselman guitar, bass clarinet
Kato Hideki bass
Basic tracks recorded by Kato Hideki and Peter Karl at Peter Karl Studios, Brooklyn, NY, October 2012
Overdubs recorded by Kato Hideki at Dog Day Studio, Brooklyn, NY, November 2012
Mixed and mastered by Kato Hideki at Dog Day Studio, July-September 2013
Produced by Karen Mantler and Kato Hideki
Release date: 13 June 2014

Karen Mantler is more than the sum of her genetic parts. As the daughter of Michael Mantler and Carla Bley, one might expect her to be any number of things, but ultimately she has come into her own as a singer-songwriter of understated brilliance. It’s difficult to capture the profound simplicity, it not the simple profundity, of her lyrics, much less so the skeletal arrangements in which she couches them in trio with bassist Kato Hideki and Doug Wieselman on guitar and bass clarinet. There is an innocence and charm about these songs, but also a maturity that only comes with the ups and downs of life experience. Mantler focuses decidedly on the latter throughout Business Is Bad, which paints the portrait of an artist starving through deprivations at once social, linguistic, climatic, emotional, legal, artistic, and geographic. Practically dripping with self-awareness, each is a vignette of insight into the working mind of a mind at work.

Mantler Trio
(Photo by Carol Lipnik)

Whether taking on the plight of the homeless in “Catch As Catch Can” or lamenting airport closures caused by “That Damn Volcano” (which, one can only assume, refers to the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull in 2010), Mantler’s slack-jawed lyricism discloses a tongue in universal cheek that wags almost like a child’s, filtering out none of life’s pessimistic moments. With deadpan humor and the meticulous support of her bandmates, she comes across like bold print on the page, a DNA helix gone rogue.

Despite the album’s gloomy pall, there’s much whimsy to be savored, and much of it self-deprecating. The bossa nova skin of “My Magic Pencil (Wrote This Melody)” does little to conceal Mantler’s delightful frustrations over the wanderlust of her most ubiquitous compositional tool. “Speak French” conveys the disadvantages of being monolingual, seesawing English and French like a language instruction tape. On a subterranean level, however, it is a song about the musician’s desire to be heard—all the more ironic, because music is one of the very few languages that transcends such arbitrary barriers. Even when she sings of dead ends, lost causes, and a faithless system in “I Can’t Afford My Lawyer,” she makes as astute observation on the nature of art, which becomes little more than a profit machine built around people’s misfortunes. And in the nervous “My Solo,” in which she expresses a lack of confidence in playing exactly that, she nonetheless produces a songful harmonica solo in the album’s longest, and prettiest, instrumental section.

Between jazzier, diaristic observations (see “Wintertime” and the title track’s funkier blues) and the requisite breakup song (“Surviving You”), Mantler jumps from the quotidian to the philosophical in a single keystroke. If this is your first Mantler album, these extremes may either repel or enchant, but one thing is for sure: her songs are a gust of fresh air in a musical landscape gone dry.

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