(2014 Stone after Stone)
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Erik Kjelland and his band the Mascot Theory were bitten by the Nashville bug a couple of years ago while touring their first album, Under the Borrowed Moon. They’ve invested a lot of time and travel since, recruiting producer Sean Giovanni (Big and Rich, Bret Michaels, L’il Wayne, John Legend) and securing The Record Shop studio to create their third album Hand Me Down Miracles. Hand Me Down Miracles is Kjelland’s fifteenth recording with Stone after Stone Records, his partnership with mentor and frequent collaborator Art Ranney. It’s not that the Mascot Theory didn’t already have a lot of country in their folk rock (we call it Americana now) but the Nashville influence is all over this record.
As a great leadoff track should, “When I Drift Away” fuses all the elements of what follows: strong melodicism in the instrumentation and the rich vocal blend of the Mascot Theory’s four singers, crisp percussion that pushes the kick drum up in the mix in the style of Mumford & Sons and their clone the Lumineers, a foundation of acoustic instruments – especially guitar – adorned with pedal steel and mandolin, and a killer hook. A radio-friendly single with crossover appeal, the vocal-break refrain near the end seals the deal.
The band’s sound is completed and enhanced by Iowa musician Mark Oberfoell who plays in country group the Swingin’ Doors while sitting in with lots of others including the Mascot Theory. His contributions on pedal steel, mandolin and banjo grace the album, giving it a homespun feel, a perfect ingredient in the Nashville concoction.
Kjelland is a consummate storyteller with poetic notions. He has a way with melody, words and phrasing and the album is chock full of these features. My favorite lyric here sets the melancholy feel of “I’m a Front Porch”: “How can we think about tomorrow when we’re stuck in yesterday / I told you I’m a front porch and you’re the car that rolled away / It’s a shame we can’t see through this broken window in the cold / You’re a question with no answer and I’m a story that’s been told.” Brilliant. Banjo and two-step drumming communicate the feeling of moving on as the “Who knows where the wind blows” chorus suggests, while guest musician and Madisonian Kenny Leiser’s (Mighty Wheelhouse) violin speaks volumes.
Other guest appearances enhance the Mascot Theory sound. Nashville residents Peter Keys (George Clinton, Lynyrd Skynyrd) adds organ to two tracks, Walker Young plays accordion, and Scarlett Rische brings the mandolin. Ryan Werntz, hailing from Illinois, plays trumpet on four tracks which puts the western in the country.
“My Eyes See” borrows directly from the Mumford/Lumineers playbook, complete with boisterous sing-along refrain driven by kick drum and toms while shunning the snare drum. “Monterey” features Madison’s Beth Kille on backup vocals and is the story of a guilt-torn soldier who flees confrontation during the Mexican-American War. Giovanni doesn’t employ many production tricks, choosing to let the band represent its true sound, but the cannon-shot reverb he mixes into a drum fill near the end of the track is most effective.
All of the album’s twelve songs are memorable, even the Gin Blossoms cover of “Hey Jealousy” which the band slows down, reducing the song to the plaintive plea of the lyrics while losing the bombast and jangly electric guitar that characterizes the original recording (and every other Gin Blossoms song).
“Sun it Rises” highlights everything that’s noteworthy about Hand Me Down Memories, especially the drum track played by Paul Metz, who shines throughout the album. The keys bring the song to life while guitarist Adam White turns in a fittingly tasty solo. “One Last Train” also bears mentioning as another standout that encapsulates the Mascot Theory ethos. Here Kjelland romanticizes the loneliness of the road and the solitary life, his harmonica underscoring the emotion while Oberfoell’s pedal steel mourns in the distance and Leiser’s violin soars. The vocal performance (also including Kille) here is extraordinary; tightly phrased and gorgeously harmonized.
Kjelland is certainly reaching for a larger market with the Mascot Theory and the Nashville calling could end up being too strong to resist. Either way, Hand Me Down Miracles strengthens his credentials as a prolific, seasoned songwriter and should the album cross paths with the right people, who knows what could result. Like many local acts who don’t fit into just one clique, the Mascot Theory have had their share of issues getting traction in Madison despite effective promotion and consistent releases. Fifteen albums is far more than most artists conjure up in a lifetime so Kjelland and the Mascot Theory deserve more. Hand Me Down Miracles positions the Mascot Theory a few rungs higher on the ladder and could be the impetus that gets their ticket punched.