OK, I’m going to come out and say it: I am glad summer is over. I can now rejoice, safe in the knowledge that I will get a welcome break from Facebook posts crowing about how wonderful it feels to have unlimited free time to lounge on the beach as working class stiffs like yours truly simmer in stop-and-go traffic. I can kick back and breathe easy, delighted that the tourists have lost interest and scurried back to their overcrowded and noisy abodes in the Oranges, Rockaways and Palisades. Good riddance to the never-ending procession of lemmings that clog local waterholes and drive around in Escalades and CL550s, blasting rap and techno as I roll up my windows and fight my way down the block for the very last cup of available coffee.
Fall is the time I love. The air is filled with excitement and hope, and the convergence of life returns to the core community theme. And that settled sense of focus opens a new door on local music and the artists that make our area the most intriguing in the nation.
This week’s Shoreworld hails the return of Monmouth County singer-songwriter Karen Mansfield. Karen has been part of the scene ever since I can remember. Starting back in the ’80s, Mansfield kicked things off in the schlock and shock all-girl group, The Bleeding Knees.
The Bleeding Knees were a local punk outfit that sang outrageous songs about the beautiful act of sexual gratification. From the hilarious description of appendages to stories of oral and acrobatic antics, no stone was left unturned in their quest to get the dance floor packed with amorous boys and girls.
Mansfield was the one original member that would rise from the ashes of this entertaining foursome to continue in the business of music. Recording and performing with numerous artists, Mansfield is associated with names such as Jewel, Concrete Blonde, Johnny Thunders, Willie Nile, Bobby Bandiera, Shawn Pelton (Saturday Night Live Band), Mikael Jorgensen (Wilco), Erik Paparazzi (Cat Power), John Conte (Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes), Whirling Dervishes, John Eddie and Vance Gilbert.
Karen rings in the fall season with her brand new eponymous EP, Karen Mansfield. Written over the last few years, the EP captures the life experience of an artist who has weathered many personal and professional changes in life, and unabashedly details them on this compact thumbnail sketch of life and love. The EP was produced by Rob Tanico (Mr. Reality, Highway 9) and marks his first effort as a producer. As a writer and player, he has shared time with artists such as the Jonas Brothers, Val Emmich and Alex Brumel. Mansfield has also enlisted some key scene players on this disc, and musicians such as P.K. Lavengood, Dave Halpern, Bob Butkowski and Billy Siegel are all featured on various selections.
The record steps in with the gritty, 1960s flavoring of “I Know You Know.” Lavengood grinds out chimey, tube-fueled chords in the vein of Billy Harrison (Them) as Halpern slams his “Mystery Achievement” drum theme straight up the middle. Mansfield’s voice is both melodic and fun, delivering passionate pop-based moxie from the very first note. Maris Krauss and Nadia Chanel harmonize seamlessly with Mansfield, making it impossible not to tap a toe when you’re listening to this easy, breezy look into the never-ending act of chasing down desire. Lavengood’s middle-eight guitar work reverberates with Chris Isaak-like class and ties the bridge back into the songs driving and catchy chorus.
“No More Suffering” is immediately one of my favorites. Utilizing the combination of Lavengood’s cowboy riffs and Robert Butkowski’s lonely truck stop pedal steel bends, it’s the perfect setup for Mansfield to shine. Smooth and beautifully toned, Mansfield projects the emotional angst and visual melancholy of unrequited love. Drums and bass roll smooth under the middle-eight organ work of Tanico as Lavengood and Butkowski weave melodic tapestries of steel and wood.
“Your Lies” is an elegant roll into 1970s songwriter gold. Mansfield reminds me of Nicolette Larson as she swings and sways the listener with the addictive magic of her sugarcoated vocal skills. Simple and sound, this is a song that utilizes traditional soft rock rhythms and themes and thrives in a simple delivery. The triple threat backing vocals of Maris Krauss, Nadia Chanel and Quaniesha Crankfield wrap perfectly around Mansfield’s lyrical solace as she surrenders to the fact that sometimes the illusion of love is better than the reality that it never existed. The desolate bridge work of Butkowski and Lavengood frame this picturesque saga of heartbreak exquisitely. This is the song that radio will love to play.
“Just A Man” kicks out of the speakers in pure road tavern rock style. Country guitars bend and cry over the top of orbital key work in the vein of the Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp. The middle-eight is a little standard fare, splitting the bridge and taking turns with guitar and piano solos, but saved overall by the passionate delivery of Mansfield’s confessional swooning.
“Destiny” is a frolicsome formula in the vein of Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s. Bass and drums shimmy and pop with new wave panache as Lavengood does his best Peter Buck jangle. I loved the melodic, circus-like organ work in the middle-eight. A little bit ? And The Mysterians and a little bit Elvis Costello. Mansfield continues her thematic quest on the quandary of love and loss as background vocals echo their layered affirmations perfectly.
“Keep On” (For the sunny days) Mansfield proselytizes to the masses here. Powering through all the tribulations of family, relationships and disappointments they leave behind, Karen fills the listener with the hope for a better day around the next corner and a happier future upon the very next sunrise. Mansfield has a powerful voice, and I would love to hear her open up a little more in the choruses, but she’s overall tuned and toned quite well. Mansfield’s lyrics tell me this isn’t just some made up content to put on a record, and the intimacy comes through in her delivery. Special guest Billy Siegel (Whirling Dervishes) brings that Tennessee backcountry tone to the track as he whirls across the spectrum of the song on organ. Lavengood grinds and bends those low E strings till the cows come home while Halpern and Tanico hold down the bottom end, putting this country-tinged smoker deep in the pocket. Mansfield offers up a memorable foray into the world of bluesy rock and roll salvation and should turn quite a few industry heads.
Karen Mansfield has a strong and memorable sound. Her communicative style leaves you singing along and rooting for her after each additional listen. She is a veteran artist that has developed the ability to let go of the past and release her musical truth in the now, creating organic and believable compositions and performances. I would be curious to see what she comes up with on her next disc. Vulnerable, emotional and delivered in unhurried style, Karen Mansfield is a record that’s on an affable pathway to a successful destiny.
Karen Mansfield is scheduled to be released Nov. 16, 2014, at The Saint in Asbury Park, after which the disc will be available at karenmansfield.com, CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon. For more information and sneak peeks into the disc, check her out over at karenmansfield.com.