Like a superhero called to the scene of a crisis, The Mammals have returned with encouraging words of compassion and hope just when they’re needed most. While Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar, the leaders of this unassuming collective, wouldn’t presume to heroic status, the timing for their stirring new album couldn’t be better. Nonet was recorded before the pandemic, yet the timeless concerns it addresses — the common good, environmental responsibility, and resistance to injustice — feel especially relevant now.
If that suggests a heavy dose of good intentions, rest assured the music feels like an old-fashioned good time, nurturing and satisfying, not medicinal. Dating back nearly 20 years, though its history includes a decade-plus hiatus (which ended in 2018), the Hudson Valley, NY-based band embodies warm-hearted, wide-ranging Americana, blending folk, rock, country, soul, and pop into a mellow, refreshing brew. Merenda and Ungar both write and sing, sometimes blending their voices in glowing harmonies recalling the Buckingham-Nicks heyday of Fleetwood Mac. For Nonet, they’ve assembled nine players, weaving fiddle, banjo, Hammond organ, steel guitar, and such into a rich tapestry of sound providing different perspectives with each listen.
Gnawing anxiety smolders around the edges of Nonet, occasionally erupting into a full-blown brushfire. An ode to the traveling musician’s life, Ungar’s languid “Coming Down Off Summer” opens the album, asking, “What would we do / If time stood still? … Well, it never will,” alluding to happy days gone and perhaps opportunities missed. On “Radio Signal,” Merenda sets his gentle voice to a deceptively uneasy beat, evoking a restless soul pursuing liberation when others are trapped in everyday lives. The beautiful toe-tapper “Beyond Civilization” reaffirms that desire for transcendence, taking comfort in the thought of ultimately being reunited with the earth, even as the grandkids dance on the ground — not necessarily the uplift some will want!
Don’t mistake such existential musings for fuzzy thinking or melancholy defeatism, however. Elsewhere, Nonet marshals the defiant spirit needed to heal a damaged world. Despite a breezy Southern California vibe, “What It All Is” delivers an angry indictment of militarism and ecological ruin, and the hushed “If You Could Hear Me Now,” recalling early Dylan, sounds an urgent alarm, noting, “Time is short … and there’s a lot more to do than singin’.”
The Mammals wrap Nonet with a trio of upbeat songs designed to raise the spirits. The buoyant “You Can Come to My House” offers “a mattress in the corner” to a fellow musician, and “East Side West Side” finds Ungar in gospel-soul mode as she exhorts listeners to “make a better day.” (For more of her funkier side, check out the sultry cover of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” on the album’s deluxe edition.) Finally, Merenda’s rousing “You Gotta Believe” exclaims, “There’s a lot of good out there / You just got to believe.”
With so much uncertainly in the air right now, The Mammals’ clear-eyed optimism is especially valuable. If Nonet won’t solve the world’s ills, it surely makes it easier to face them.