It’s been eight years since Mark Growden, local bad boy of the accordion (and the bicycle handlebars), last recorded a studio album, and the weathering of not a few storms layers his lyrics with a weight typically reserved for bellowers of dust-bowl ballads and feverish Appalachia-born hymns. But though Growden -- who'll be performing Wed/11-Sun/14 at the Porto Franco Art Parlor -- captures the sorrow and sincerity of a high lonesome crooner, his unique instrumental blend of Dixieland, Frontierland, and gypsy caravan band inhabits a genre all its own, especially on the new Saint Judas (Porto Franco).
Part chamber music, part High Noon, the atmospheric moan of songs such as “Coyote” and the first half of “The Gates/Take me to the Water,” tug low in the gut, while a touch of bitterly rollicking bar band via cabaret lane creeps into tunes such as the title track, “Take me to the Water,” and “Been in the Storm so Long”. Perhaps destined to be remembered as Growden’s finest drinking song, “Saint Judas” in particular distills the dark joviality of the sort of shambolic dive bar frequented by off-duty cab drivers, ex-junkies, and toothless pensioners, while toasting the “saint of the sinners” for taking the blame, “’cause somebody had to.”
But for an album so intimately acquainted with woe, the real connective thread throughout is not one of pain, but one of love. Hurt love hopeful love, dashed love, and eternal love, each facet of the ever-abiding emotion has its own moment to shine in the flickering glow of the Mark Growden ensemble’s warm strings, hot licks, and sizzling horns. There’s an ode to love the undertaker (“Undertaker”), love the temptress (“Delilah”), and love the hidden (“Inside Every Bird”). A melancholy, lounge-y cover of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” and the lonely dirge to a fallen companion “Coyote,” dissect heartbreak while the banjo-infused jam piece, “Everybody Holds a Piece of the Sun,” and the tenderly wistful rendition of “All the Pretty Little Horses,” remind of hope.
Growden’s music has never been the kind that compels the body without first engaging the mind, and Saint Judas is full of the kinds of compositional layers and technical surprises that keep music geeks happy while still providing enough oompah and oomph for the kinesthetic enjoyment of the masses. It’s a homegrown affair all the way through, released by Mission-based family label Porto Franco records, with cover art by local muralist Mona Caron, and championed by various luminaries of the San Francisco underground. And yet, meticulously designed and arranged, this album has obviously been crafted with a high trajectory in mind, and time will tell if this bid to escape the gilded cage of regionalism will take.