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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1430

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Harry Manx: Mantras for Madmen
by George Graham

(Dog My Cat 13982 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/25/2006)

The World Music scene has provided interesting music in two ways -- first though hearing styles from out-of-the-way places, and then as musicians from the various locales begin to interact, the mixtures of styles and cultures. Sometimes those combinations can be a culture clash, resulting in just plain bad music when the fusions are forced, or played by musicians who don't understand the styles they are attempting to mix. But at other times, the result can be fascinating, especially when that combination points out a common thread among very different musical traditions.

This week, we have the latest recording by a an English-born, Canadian-based musician who combines acoustic blues with Indian influence. He is Harry Manx, and his new CD is called Mantras for Madmen.

Born on the Isle of Man, Harry Manx spent a his childhood in Canada, then as a teen traveled and lived around Europe, and in Japan, Brazil and some twelve years in India. It was in India during the 1980s, where he spent some five years living in Bombay, that he was especially captivated by the musical traditions, and where he found a connection between the plaintive bending notes of the sitar and Delta blues slide guitar. He spent much of that time in the presence of Indian musical virtuoso V.H. Bhatt, who had also collaborated with Ry Cooder on an album. Bhatt created an instrument call the Mohan Veena, which was a hybrid between a guitar and a sitar, and presented it to Manx, who has been using it on his past several CDs. Manx also plays more conventional guitar, often in the blues slide style, plus a six-string banjo, and a lap steel guitar. He is also a songwriter whose lyrical style runs toward what one might expect from a folkie: literate and sometimes philosophical. Manx' visibility has been much higher in Canada than in the US. North of the border he has experienced some commercial success, with this CD already having been in the Canadian top 20.

In addition to his mixture of the blues and Indian music, Manx also enlists the services of bluegrass mandolinist John Reichman. Other players on Mantras for Madmen include a more conventional rhythm section with Geoff Hicks on drums, and Billy Mendoza on bass. Niel Golden adds some occasional percussion, including the tabla drums, Steve Marriner plays some harmonica more in the style of Stevie Wonder than in the traditional blues style, and there are four women providing backing vocals, sometimes performing in the soul style. So it's a fascinating mix, but with a quite appealing sound. The Western influences are almost always front and center, with the more exotic instrumentation providing distinctive sonic colors. There are two instrumental tracks that do draw on Indian music for their style.

But the CD starts with an original called Where Fools Die, one of the more conventional-sounding songs. It's nicely done with the harmonica being about the most distinctive sound in the track. <<>>

That is followed by one of two cover songs, J.J. Cale's San Diego-Tijuana, which instead of having a Latin-American sound, is given a decidedly exotic Eastern flavor, with Manx playing his mohan veena instrument. <<>>

A piece nicely wrapping up the Eastern and bluesy musical streams is The Point of Purchase. The lyrics, with a vague social commentary, seem straight out of the Sixties-influenced folk scene, while the mixture of musical styles is both intriguing and engaging. Interestingly, Manx achieves his exotic Eastern sound with a more conventional slide guitar. <<>>

One of the most interesting sonic mixtures on the CD is a piece called Your Sweet Name, which combines a very bluegrass-influenced mandolin with the Indian instrumentation, including tabla and Manx on his mohan veena hybrid, while the song takes a bluesy direction. <<>>

The first of the instrumental pieces is called Afghani Raga, which evokes a more traditional raga style, though Manx gives it a bluesy quality with his guitar work. <<>>

This CD generally avoids the usual songwriting topics, but there is one love song, or rather a lost-love song called It Makes No Difference, by Robbie Robertson of The Band. The performance does not venture into the Eastern influence, but instead Manx and company provide blues, bluegrass, and soul-style backing vocals. <<>>

One of the backing vocalists on the CD is Emily Braden, and she shares the lead vocal on the song It Takes a Tear, which also combines blues influence with the bluegrass-flavored mandolin. <<>>

For me one of the highlights of the CD, epitomizing the intriguing sound of the album is A Single Spark, Manx plays his mohan veena, along with a more conventional slide guitar, while the harmonica adds a bluesy touch, and the backing vocals hint at old soul records. <<>>

Harry Manx' new sixth CD Mantras for Madmen is a world music fusion recording that provides a creative and satisfying blend of folky blues with Indian influence and a bit of bluegrass in an acoustic singer-songwriter setting. It's an odd combination on paper, but it works very well on the CD, mainly because of Manx' skill, and the fact that he's a good songwriter. The generally minimalist acoustic arrangements also add to the appeal of the recording, so that the exotic sonic touches can be kept at a fairly subtle level. The backing musicians are also very tasteful in their contributions. So that despite a potential for a cultural collision, every track on the CD succeeds.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The acoustic instrumentation is well-captured with a pleasingly warm sound, while the vocals have an intimate quality. The dynamic range is fair.

Harry Manx has been creating his distinctive bluesy and Indian blend for about five years now, averaging more than an album a year. Previous recordings have had more limited distribution north of the border in Canada. His new CD, already a hit in Canada, will perhaps increase his visibility in the US. In any case, it's another of those creative but unlikely world music mixes that works exceptionally well and makes for satisfying listening on several levels.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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