CD review: Mark Viator & Susan Maxey – These Arms
The songs on These Arms contain a number of influences – folk, country, blues, Cajun (reflecting Mark’s heritage). One of the wonderful things about this talented duo is how seamlessly they can blend these, sometimes within an individual song, into a viable whole that is simply great music that not only touches the soul of listeners, but brings nourishment to their minds as well…not to mention inducing them to a good bit of foot-tapping in the process…and sometimes giving them the urge to dance.
Seven out of the eleven tunes on this album are Mark Viator originals, and they clearly illustrate what a fine writer he is. He’s also a very talented guitarist – almost all of the guitar work on the recording is Mark’s. Whether he’s fingerpicking or flatpicking, or playing slide, it’s always masterful and appropriate, and never showy for the sake of it – it’s all about the music and what supports it best and conveys the mood. When Mark shifts from accompanying lyrics to adding a spot of lead, the naturalness is wonderful to behold. If you’re fortunate enough to see them perform live (which we do every chance we get), you’ll understand this even more. The songs here that were written by others (Thad Beckman, Robert Earl Keen, Kate Wolf and Hank Williams) are as well-chosen as the originals are well-written, and suit Mark and Susan to a T.
Mark’s Cajun heritage is never far from the surface. `Queen of the bayou’ is a heartfelt tribute to his grandmother, a tasty stew of memories and love. `Ain’t goin back’ is an honest look at the life of a proud Louisiana working man, a vivid picture of resilience and devotion to family. `Dharma bums’, as one might gather from the title, was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel, and wonders eloquently if the idealism the book inspired in many of us when we read it the first time can be carried and kept alive as our lives move along. Susan’s voice carries Mark’s original `These arms’ to sweet heights – it’s a beautiful love song, extremely moving, and one you’ll find yourself humming it before you realize it. Her renditions of Kate Wolf songs (‘Across the Great Divide’ appears here), as well as those of country legends such as Hank Williams (‘I’m so lonesome I could cry’ gets a beautiful reading on this album) and Patsy Cline (if you’re lucky enough to see them perform, ask for ‘Walkin after midnight’), are all nothing short of wonderful, and Robert Earl Keen’s ‘I would change my life’ illustrates that she can give new life to more contemporary songs. She makes everything she sings her own, reaching down into her artist’s soul to color them with shades from her own palette. When the two of them blend their voices, the harmonies are perfect and the chemistry is intimate – you can get a sense of it from just listening, but again, seeing them perform in a live setting makes it abundantly clear that they love what they’re doing.
Many of Austin’s finest musicians lend their talents to this recording. It never feels over-crowded, rather like a conversation among good friends, where everyone has something to contribute but no one attempts to dominate. Every track flows easily along, without production getting in the way of the material. As I said earlier, this is simply great music – well-written, performed with heart and talent, and a complete joy to experience. Pass it up at your peril. Have a look at their website – there are samples, lyrics and other information available there. I think you’ll hear what I mean. If you like what you hear, check out Mark’s earlier solo album Bayou Têche, filled with more finely-crafted original songs (one co-written by another great Austin-based songwriter, Slaid Cleaves), and his solo acoustic guitar offering Wire & Wood, showcasing his instrumental talents. They’re both excellent.
Mark is constantly introducing new material at their live shows, and he and Susan have begun laying down tracks for their next album, tentatively scheduled for early 2014. It can’t get here too quickly to suit me, but I know they’re approaching the project with love and care, and this takes time. I have no doubt it’ll be well worth the wait.