Mark Bates. Down The Narrow.

Mark Bates is a youthful chap from West Virginia who has produced an album chockfull of the contradictions inherent in the music of the American south. Ostensibly a God fearin’ population, scratch the surface and there is sex, crime, fear and darkness. Bates was raised in a church going family and drank in the waters of this duality. He sings with passion of whores, murder and alcohol, ingrained with the spirit of the area. With a mixture of blues soaked tales, soiled ballads and country tunes Bates’ piano is well supported by an able musical cast with guitarist Duke Levine and on keyboards Michael Bellar shining in particular.
Forbidden Love thumps along with a southern swampy edge and while the lyrics are a compendium of voodoo and dirty love clichés the delivery is excellent, muscular and gripping. In the same vein Daisy is a dirty sounding blues slugger with Hammond organ and biting guitar as Bates describes the eponymous Daisy who smells like a polecat and never takes a shower. Shotgun with the Devil starts with a skeletal banjo and percussion that sounds like agitated crickets as Bates visits again a southern trope, the musician’s meeting with Old Nick. This is a claustrophobic and suspense filled song that builds in atmosphere with a sense of doom.
Away from the blues The Promised Land is a tale of murder and retribution told in a time tried tradition, an excellent story that is buttressed by fine playing almost as if The Band had taken an old country tune and handed it to Bates. Go On takes on an approximation of Mercury Rev’s take on the Band with what seems to a musical saw offering celestial swoons on a superior piano ballad.
A Drunkard’s Tale is perhaps the most dramatic song here and certainly the one that will get mentioned in reviews. Personally I think it’s one of the weaker songs with too much melodrama and with Bates trying just too hard to reach a higher register in his vocals, this is a song that Tom Waits might carry off but Bates just doesn’t have that gravitas and deadpan beatness.
The one cover here, Townes Van Zandt’s Flying Shoes is given a very successful and dynamic reading which fits well with the overall sense of the album The last song is a vaudevillian romp called Death Sucks which conjures up a New Orleans jazz line on a morbidly bleak of family fault lines at a funeral and provides a fitting end to a fine album.
You can buy it here
and listen to some of the songs here

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