West Virginia’s alt-country’s dark-cabaret duo Mink’s Miracle Medicine is comprised of an authoritative, fully-fueled two-some with a dynamic singer-guitarist in Melissa Wright who along with her partner drummer-vocalist Daniel Zezeski of Pennsylvania is both engaging and assertive right out of the gate. The album art doesn’t suggest this kind of proficiency or energy but believe me as the album progresses — it’s a Pandora’s Box of tight fascinating music…so, open the lid and give it half a chance.
Their second LP recently released is “Pyramid Theories” – and it opens with the title track, winds around immediately with thick notes and adds pristine Melissa Wright vocals. Though this opener is a bit plodding with a steady one-two snare beat it’s Wright’s vocal that grips you and lifts the song through the spare instrumentation. It’s like a cup of dark coffee — but she adds the sugar and cream to shape the music into a tasteful brew. The song is meant to be somewhat intense and is the duo’s intended aim I believe. As well, they are utilizing the less is more theory because it is spare – but it is at the same time – enough. There is no over-production here, but all the performances are recorded to be heard cleanly and are.
The backup singing – which could be Melissa’s own voice tracked – is mixed at a perfect level. There’s no leakage of other instruments and nothing intrudes. Ms. Wright’s guitars spread over the tune like two different flavors of jam and she adds it sparingly. I’m beginning to taste a little Swans, a little Jarboe, and Michael Gira, (in their dark country manifestation The Burning World. Yes, I know it’s a stretch, but it does sound like that is the path Melissa and Daniel are taking).
A little Dead Can Dance, (“American Dreaming”) sneaks in and there and morsels of Syd Straw with This Mortal Coil (“Diamond”). It’s in the mix but transfixed and stirred in quite a compelling way. Melissa’s voice is the magic potion. It’s dark, but at the same time, sweet and teasingly hypnotic.
The independent CD release cover art is so spare you wouldn’t expect the music to flow from this disc to correspond with the artwork. The logo suggests an old west medicine wagon with snake oil and hair tonics, carnival people, relief for rheumatism but no – it has more wolfbane and garlic than tea and herbs.
“Page of Me,” is another spare track and the duo continues with the basic one-two beat but, it’s this duo’s lyrics, melodies, and showcase that decorate an interesting scene. Maybe the guitars need to be tuned differently or change the guitars to lend the songs a little more distinction between each…didn’t Joni Mitchell at one time have a stage filled with different guitars and tunings — so her sound would not be redundant? Well, give the band time…guitars are expensive.
The guitar when you can hear it has some nice feeling and holds the line of the atmosphere in the songs. The songs, even when spare, do have power – they just need a better framework — that could come with live performing. It’s all done with – not amateur enthusiasm – because they don’t sound at all amateur, but homegrown, more spirit than technique. Melissa’s voice is always transformative – it’s absorbing and never lets up on its cool delivery. I like her salt.
This is also reminiscent of Trish Milliken’s fine band Rubber Rodeo back in the early 80’s. They also explored a dark-country genre quite successfully (“Maybe Next Year,” “Before I Go Away,” & “Walking After Midnight”). Melissa’s voice is somewhat in that Milliken style which is a compliment. I’m surprised Trish never sought a solo singing career when the band broke up. No matter, we have Melissa now.
“Brave Front,” – same musical groove opens the third song but with a little more of shuffle and steady cymbal tap. Daniel sings well, and on this one deadpan but has a nice Michael Gira (Swans) tone, not quite as deep as Gira’s or with the complexities of his lyrics. But time will tell. There is always density to MMM’s music and performance which keeps it interesting. The fuzz tone on Melissa’s guitar is like brushed wool and her backup should have been a little more pronounced because their voices together with hers would add a whole new color to their showcase and they seem to work well too.
A piano is added to the excellent “Now I Understand the Blues.” At this point, the songs start to take on a more country-coloring. Melissa’s misstep on this song is that she should know that you don’t try to hold notes on hard “r’s.” That’s singing lesson 101. But she does sing quite well nonetheless, and I guess it could be forgiven. But the song would have been so much easier on the ear if the lyrics were written without hard r’s – hold on vowels…vowels. But that was the only grimace. The tale in the song was good – nice storytelling. The song could use some stronger support – more instruments, banjo, mandolin, more distinctive acoustic guitar. The song IS good – just drop holding notes on hard r’s.
Oooofa. That’s what you end a lyric line with? No…and it’s not pronounced “door”, in vocalizing — it’s daw. Drop the “r.” If you insist on hard letter note holding this the best approach. This is where listening to Frank Sinatra would do some good and not Frankie Valli. (“Grease” was a mess). Sinatra was king of phrasing and intonation. Important even in rock, folk, and country.
Surprisingly, the next track is dark but more in a girl-group 60’s style like The Shangri Las but a little more modern — by way of The Bangles and Go-Gos. It works nicely with Melissa’s tracked voice. “Uninterrupted Time,” also has word pronunciation much like sister-vocal group The Roches — who are quite intense.
Though, not my cup of tea Melissa does a credible job. But even The Roches knew they needed the haunting looped Frippertronics of King Crimson’s guitarist Robert Fripp to support their early, quirky but well-sung songs. I do like the Theremin-like-flute that runs through this MMM song – that was clever. I will give credit to Melissa and Daniel because they do add some creepy instrumentation to an otherwise pleasant melody and that does lift the song, make it intriguing and they took a gamble. Melissa seems able to sing anything effectively. The song is bouncy, not very 2018, but it’s a musical confection and it’s done well.
“Compost,” is a nice turnaround for both Melissa and Daniel. An acoustic song that sounds like something from Green Day in their acoustic ballad mode (“Time of Your Life”). Melissa’s vocal is warmer, serious, and this reflective song has a good lyric — sad, but pleasurable in how Melissa presents it. It also sounds like it could have been an early Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins song back in the mid-60’s. I particularly like how Melissa’s voice reaches a peak with the deep notes of a church organ. Wonderful. This is one of the duo’s sparest songs and it’s the most memorable. Wise choice to include it here.
In an upbeat churchy-organ drive much like Billy Swan (“I Can Help”) – country song cum rock style “Born Again,” Melissa adds her most powerful and expressive voice. With the added calliope-type carnival-circus organ playing and laying down a little dark melody, it’s engaging. Melissa turns in a nice “Second Hand Rose,” (Barbra Streisand) and “L. David Sloane” (Michelle Lee) middle of the road vocal kick to the tune. It’s impressive — in the old days, they called these types of songs “ditties.” I call it good marketing.
The final track has dark textures and nice acoustic guitar playing under the watery surface. “Wooden Heart,” has some compelling lyrics. Melissa and David perform with lots of borderline dark-cabaret. A touch of Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht (“Mack the Knife”) – tainted music hall turn-of-the-century bawdy, ribald, bordello music. Some spots are downright gruesome but sung with a German romantic flair in the typical Tom Waits swirl of pale faces, carnival bodies and swordfish trombones. “…if I had a machete.” Indeed.
Great concluding tune and this and “Compost,” — maybe these are their forte. The Tiger Lilies (“Hell”) — but with free of the demonic vocal. Brilliant.
The album is 8-tracks at 30 minutes. Melissa was once upright bassist for the band Bumper Jacksons. No producer was listed on the album – and there is a possibility the CD art I have is just the preliminary art prior to release. No other musicians were listed.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / October 2018