Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar, after a long spell on the road and one (excellent) album as The Mike & Ruthy Band, here revive their old band name which went into hibernation some years back. The Mammals were considered one of the best roots rock band back in the noughties and came with a government warning due to their political songs, one in particular, The Bush Boys, getting right up the White House’s nose.
Currently a six piece band, the front pair are joined by guitarist and keyboard player Ken Maiuri, pedal steel player Charlie Rose, bassist Jacob Silver and drummer Konrad Meissner. Together they have produced in Sunshiner, an incredibly vibrant and joyous slice of music, a collection of songs that glide, that soar and exhilarate. This is today’s American folk rock, the band rolling along expertly picking up moss from antecedents from both sides of the Atlantic such as Fairport Convention, The Byrds and The Band while ancient roots from the folk tradition are also to be heard. It’s also a political album, not in the sense of polemics, but across the piece they cleave to an American radical position which goes all the way back to the Wobblies through to hippies and into the current protests on American streets. They celebrate humanity, deplore poverty and care for the environment and they do so in a most entertaining manner.
The full power and sweep of the band is apparent on the opening Make It True with its Dylan like harmonica and folksy bustle with soaring harmonies urging folk to just appreciate and celebrate the very act of being here. This impressive ensemble sound is repeated on The Flood and Fork In The Road while Culture War is somewhat more folky with Merenda commenting caustically on current information highways, worrying about those cathode rays beamed into homes and feeding your mind, instead urging folk to get back to basics citing Guthrie and Seeger – basically, Educate, Agitate and Organise. Open The Door meanwhile has Ungar singing about altruism with the band laying down a powerful rock beat and as the song heats up she sounds almost like Grace Slick as she hammers home the closing lyrics. For a full appreciation of the band’s chops however there’s the incredible kaleidoscopic mix of rock and folk which is Doctor’s Orders. There are words in here but they are submerged and distorted as Ungar’s fiddle and Maiuri’s organ just go kind of batshit all over the place, a delirious knees up indeed.
While this quicksilver folk rock sound is exhilarating, the band dial it down on a couple of numbers going back to their Catskill roots. Beautiful One is just Ungar and her ukulele on a lullaby like primer for kids advising them to be loving and kind and children are again at the heart of My Baby Drinks Water with Ungar’s voice almost acapella ( her father, Jay, adds some very quiet violin) as she decries an avaristic society which allows children to starve. Maple Leaf chugs along nicely with a fine ecological message and Sunshiner is a very tender acoustic number with Merenda singing about a family whose men folk worked in the mines but who now try to be carbon neutral with solar powered generators. A worthy but perhaps dry subject to sing about but the band invest it with a quiet beauty, banjo tinkling and pedal steel gently flowing. When My Story Ends is a song some folk might consider worth having played at their demise. Sounding as if it could have been written by Pete Seeger or Rosalie Sorrels it’s an incredibly sweet song with Ungar singing of her perfect way to end her days on earth. They close the album with the beguiling notes of Big Ideas, the music here recalling the mood and ambience of John Martyn’s Grace and Danger over nine soothing minutes with Ungar and Merenda softly singing together over muted keyboards and atmospheric guitars. It’s truly a beautiful song and a wonderful way to end the album.