Tony Wray must be the best behaved husband in America; at least, he had better be.
More on that later in the review.
Blue Mafia are a relatively new bluegrass outfit based in Muncie, Indiana. Earlier this summer, they sent me their debut release, "My Cold Heart." It is a thirteen track collection of sparkling, modern bluegrass that is finely polished but isn't glossy to a fault.
"My Cold Heart" is one of the more obviously excellently produced bluegrass albums I have had the pleasure of experiencing this summer. Interestingly, the production and engineering credits are missing from my copy, and this is unfortunate as the individuals responsible deserve acknowledgement. The sound is bright, the music produced by the instruments 'pop' right out of the speaker, and the mix is pleasing to my ear. I love it when care is taken with the sound of an album, when every syllable of lyric sung is audible within the mix and yet nothing instrumentally is lost through excessive fading.
Blue Mafia is composed of the husband and wife team of Tony (guitar) and Dara Wray (mandolin.) This powerhouse couple is joined by the experienced threesome of Cody Looper (banjo), Michael Gegory (bass), and Kent Todd (fiddle.) Without being deliberate, each member is allowed many opportunities to express their own creativity and instrumental mastery. For example, My Cold Heart is a banjo-fueled song providing Looper opportunity to shine, while Tony Wray's guitar break within this track is stunning.
The groovy instrumental 'At's Right presents the five instruments working together to create a memorable tune that actually goes somewhere- in my listening experience, an increasingly rare occurrence with bluegrass instrumentals. Just after the two-minute mark, there is a subtle downshift in tempo that impresses before firing up again for an extended denouement.
Blue Mafia presents a pair of familiar numbers. Their interpretation of Pretty Polly is the finest I've heard recorded in a might spell, and Three Men on a Mountain is as inspiring as ever with an arrangement that doesn't ignore the 5-string. Less frequently encountered is an old Wynn Stewart song (yes, I had to Google it) Another Day Another Dollar and an outstanding performance of Patrick Sky's (no, I didn't have to Google it) Many a Mile; while the Country Gentlemen brought the folk song to bluegrass many years ago, not too many outfits have attempted to record it since: Blue Mafia does the song, and those who have recorded it before them, justice.
The majority of the material on "My Cold Heart" has been written by Dara Wray. And, that brings me back to the introduction of this review.
At least as a songwriter, Wray is a woman with trouble on her mind and she isn't one to put up with triflin' from her man. She definitely gets the last word in Your Last Breath, a gentle-sounding song that could be mistaken for a weepy 'he-done-died-on-me' number; that is, if you aren't paying attention. 'Cause the song's narrator sure isn't weeping as "the reason you took your last breath of air." It is a 24 caret corker of a song.
To suggest that Wray has explored cheating from any number of perspectives on "My Cold Heart" would be an understatement. Double Talking Woman (sung by Looper) and I'm About to Leave (sung by Wray herself) are fairly conventional, but no means unsatisfactory, bluegrass cheating songs. The title track takes on the 'best friend catches the husband's eye' oeuvre quite effectively; unusually this protagonist, while "weak and weary" from his cheating ways, has the gumption to send the fellow packing. Most impressive is Lonely Teardrops a showcase for Tony Ware; playing all the instruments himself, and augmented by father-in-law David Denman's (Union Station) harmony contributions, Wray performs a song quite unlike anything else on the album- a moody, smoldering ballad: one can almost see the neon reflecting off the motel room windows.
I won't attempt to dissect the psychology of a cheating song written by the wife of the guy singing it- supported vocally by her dad- where the final result is less than positive for the adulteress.
With the songs of rocky relationships behind us, let it stand that Dara Wray has written a handful of terrific songs for this album. This Mining Life captures the power that comes from pride when raising a family in trying circumstances; things are tough, nothing is freely given (beyond the love of family), and the work- and you're paid 'weakly'- never ends. Still, you get up and do it all over again because you must.
Debut bluegrass albums come in all manner of quality. "My Cold Heart" is by far the most remarkable bluegrass debut I've heard this year, made all the more impressive in that the band has done it themselves. When the IBMA special committees are looking at recognizing Emerging Artists and those to consider for Momentum Awards , they are well-advised to consider the talents within Blue Mafia.