Tom Mank & Sera Smolen – Swimming In the Dark
From the liner notes: “A Sergeant Oliver of the Sixth Black Watch was shot… when he went forward in violation of orders not to fraternize with the enemy on Christmas Day, 1915. (Sentries on both sides had been ordered to kill anyone trying to re-enact the famous Christmas truce of the year before.) This sergeant… is buried in a little old cemetery by the side of the road a mile or so from Laventie.” From The Great War and Modern History by Paul Fussell.
They shot him, this Sergeant Oliver. They shot him dead. For wanting to share Christmas with the enemy. The enemy. Poor schmucks fed political crap by rich men who stood to gain the world through war. Oliver could have been a carpenter or a shoemaker or a taxi driver. The guy who shot him could have been the same. You can bet that whatever they did for a living, they weren’t politicians. No self-respecting politician would ever be caught in a uniform— or, at the least, not on front lines. No one cared except for the few friends Sergeant Oliver had, and his family. No one remembers. The guy who shot him did, unless he was like the many psychopaths who inhabit today’s world. No one.
Except Tom Mank. Mank remembers. He may have not been there, but he remembers. He remembers train rides in blacked out trains, the desperation of wars no one understood or understands, the rock that sits in the pit of one’s stomach when he or she sees the end of the horizon. Tom once wrote about a dear friend who was lost at sea (“Where the Sun Meets the Blue” from the album of the same title). When I realized what the song was about, I was stunned. He played the song at a remembrance ceremony. My guess is that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
I may know Mank only through his songs and a few emails, but I know him. I know that the music he deems worthy of recording is worthy of hearing. I know that he writes and sings from the depths of his soul. His soul. “Sergeant Oliver”. The name of the song Mank wrote about the soldier assassinated by possibly his own troops, for it was not only the bullet which killed him but all of the people who set up the system which made the assassination possible. Killing is too kind a word for it. On Christmas Day, no less.
Mank peppers this new album, Swimming In the Dark, with many stories. Some are heartrending duets of love and the search for Truth. Some are groove-laden retrospectives of emotion. Some are deeply personal, such as “Running Like the Wind”, written for and about his father. All are what I have learned to expect from him.
More, actually, for Mank goes out of his way on this album to include dear friends who just happen to be excellent musicians on the recordings. He had been talking of Anna Coogan for some time before this album and included a beautiful song co-written with Coogan, “Rest of My Life”. He constantly mentions Jeannie Burns (presently playing with Andrew Hardin in the duo Hardin Burns and placed a co-written (and co-sung) piece on the new album, “Green Apple”. I knew he was going to include “Sophie’s Blues”, a song written with Marijn Winands (of The Netherlands’ MaRain) because he had sent a rough demo to me months ago. A demo I played often.
The rest of the songs are all Mank and they are the best he has ever written. Soft, at times silky, always lyric-heavy. If nothing else, Tom Mank is a songwriter of depth. On some songs, incredible depth. I was going to say “I remember”, but what I really mean is “I cannot forget” the intensity of “Keep Crossing That Line” from the Where the Sun Meets the Blue album, a song about the Baltimore riots of, what year was it? 1963? That song introduced me to Julie Last and reintroduced me to Kirsti Gholson, whose first self-titled album was already a permanent fixture in my collection. They play a prominent role in this new album. I cannot forget the simple but haunting music of “Angels Are Watching You” from the album Paper Kisses nor the siren-like background vocals on “Broke Again”. And I certainly will never forget Sera Smolen‘s superb cello on most of the tracks on Mank & Smolen’s last three albums, sometimes sounding like a standup bass, sometimes brutal and rough and percussive, and sometimes flowing like a stream, adding to a beauty already there.
You can add a number of musicians to those mentioned above on Swimming In the Dark, some brought in for one song, some added on a few. If nothing else, Mank has the ear of many exceptional musicians who were evidently not at all shy about playing on the album. Who would be? Tom Mank is one of the best there is and his place beside Sera Smolen is a given after hearing only one song— take your pick.
If you want to hear what I hear, I suggest starting with Swimming In the Dark. It catches Tom Mank at his songwriting and singing best and Sera Smolen at her peak in interpreting Mank’s songs. Click here to check out their cdBaby page. Then check out their other albums. They have earned the right to be heard. Over and over again.