Sunday, May 26, 2013

Michael Stanley: The Hang

Michael Stanley.  The Hang.
Line Level Music, 2012.  Michael Stanley:

You may have wondered when we were going to get around to reviewing some stuff by Michael Stanley, since this blog is based out of Hiram College and Michael is a prominent alumnus of our esteemed institution (Class of 1970).  Well, here is a long overdue review of his album from last year.  We will also soon be posting something on his latest, as well as reaching back in time to his very first (and we mean VERY first).  

I must confess I’m not a local boy (if I had an allegiance in the land of heartland rock, it would be to Springsteen, since I grew up on the east coast, or Seeger, because I saw him in concert), and so have no stake in the legend that is Michael Stanley in Northeast Ohio.  I didn’t attend the concerts in the early 80s and wave a lighter, although I am familiar with his hits.  In that sense, I guess I can be objective.  He doesn’t have to either live up or down to my expectations.  I’ve heard glowing things about him and scathing comments that suggest that the landscape of Cleveland rock is complex.

I decided to jump in and review The Hang, in part because one potential reviewer decided that it was “too much of a downer,” and partly because it intrigues me.  I like it, maybe partly because it’s a downer (which is to say that it has intense and sad songs), but also because it’s about both change and stability.  My understanding is that Stanley has been through some tough times in the last few years, with the deaths of family and friends plaguing him.  The songs on this album mostly reflect these inevitable parts of life, and I certainly relate, since such events have affected me too.  His songs combine grieving for those who have passed, but also show glimmers of hope and resilience that come with being a survivor.  I knew him as a rocker, but there are few rockers on here.  He shows his abilities instead as a songwriter and singer of considerable depth and nuance.  

There are fourteen songs on here, all clocking at over four minutes, and so I will only cover the songs that stick in my head.  Stanley opens with “From Somewhere Else,” a mid-tempo song that could be about immigrants, but could also be about anyone coming from anywhere and the differences that are less important than our common fate.  It could easily be a song to close a concert, as the singalong refrain is extremely catchy.  “The Last Great Illusion” is an anthemic power ballad that refers to history and past love, a fine tune with another catchy hook that fans should clamor for in concert.  “Breaking Down” is, as you might imagine, a heartbreaker, dealing with loss and regret.  “Down in the Suck” has a good menacing feel, a slow burner about feeling hopeless.  Damn, the songs do start to drag one down.

Stanley pulls up the tempo with “Back in the Day,” another song about the differences between yesterday and today, with today coming in second, and while the tune is upbeat, the lyrics suggest more of a last hurrah than any sort of victory.  “Martha” is a truly sad and reflective piece, about impending death from the perspective of the woman he sings of.   He ends on a strong note with the title track, an R&B-influenced tune of toughness and deciding who to spend your time with.  The last secret track is a recording of a very young Michael in the studio with his father, a Cleveland radio DJ.  You can’t fault him for this indulgence, because it ties his past so well to his present, and the ever-present memory of his father.

I have to say that I didn’t care for the spoken dialogue in “A Damn Fine Way to Go,” although the music and sung portions are very good.  Stanley’s voice sounds just a bit too much like C.W. McCall’s, from that old country song, “Convoy,” which kind of ruins the mood for me.  And I’m never fond of songs that use the tune “Auld Lang Syne,” as does “Another New Years Eve.”  Others may feel free to differ.

I mentioned before that I think that this album represents both change and stability.  The stability is in Stanley’s consistent style, with a sound that isn’t all that different from music he made in the 80s, and that’s okay.  If he tried to sound “contemporary” the messages wouldn’t work.  The guy is 65 years old, and a phony new style is the last thing he needs to try on.  All the songs are by Stanley, except for “When It Don’t Come Easy,” by Patty Griffin, and a cover of Mark Knopfler’s “Romeo & Juliet,” which I gather was for his mother.  Everything is well performed, with members of the Resonators doing a fine job.  In sum, this is an excellent album, and one not to be missed by fans.  

Personnel:  Michael Stanley (vocals, guitar, bass), Jennifer Lee (vocals), Danny Powers (guitar, bass), Marc Lee Shannon (guitar, mandolin), Bob Pelander (keyboards), Tommy Dobeck (drums), Eroc Sosinski (bass), Rodney Psyka (percussion), Paul Christensen (saxophone), Al Moss (pedal steel), Ed Caner (violin, viola).
Tracks:  From Somewhere Else, The Last Great Illusion, How Many Guitars Do you Need, Breaking Down, When It Don’t Come So Easy, Fait Accompli, A Damn Fine Way to Go, Wonder Wheel, Down in the Suck, Back in the Day, Martha, Romeo & Juliet, Another New Years Eve, The Hang, Unnamed Track (Little Michael on WGAR).

Jeff Wanser

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