The second album from singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Mike T. Lewis and his wife and musical partner MaryBeth Zamer–collectively known as the Twangtown Paramours–is a solid advance over the couple’s 2010 debut (reviewed in July 2010 in this publication’s previous incarnation as TheBluegrassSpecial.com; the Paramours were interviewed as an Artists on the Verge 2011 pick in our February 2011 issue as well), which one of that year’s best albums. In their self-titled introductory effort, these real-life paramours explored the vagaries of relationships with surprising equanimity: Lewis’s songs acknowledged the difficulties confronting lovers in close quarters, emotionally and otherwise, whereas Ms. Zamer’s smart, nuanced vocals–clear, plaintive, resonant–honored the complexity (and duality) inherent in her husband’s lyrics. Beyond these virtues was the songs’ bracing maturity: “Might As Well Be You” posited a breakup as the best of all possible outcomes in a relationship gone awry, and the lovely “On My Way” detailed a relationships’ end days but shrugged off its failure as the price of experience.
The Twangtown Paramours, ‘Widow of the Mountain’
It’s not quite the same world on The Promise of Friday Night. The games lovers play remain a focus, but Lewis’s new songs–11 in all (plus a bonus track)–are more like a collection of short stories edging into the turbulent interior of Flannery O’Connor territory. His writing–sharper and more pointed than on the first album–is enlarged by Ms. Zamer’s knowing readings. Once a member of the band Method Actor with her friend the late, great Eva Cassidy, she’s a classic American pop singer from an era that never goes out of style with its clear diction, ringing timbre and touching expressiveness. With these qualities she’s a nice fit with Lewis’s rootsy, acoustic arrangements centered on dobro (Gary DiBenedetto), violin and viola (Mountain Heart’s Jim Van Cleve), guitar and mandolin (Lewis himself), with understated percussion courtesy Rick Lonow and, though less than on the previous album, keyboards (piano and B3 by Jay Vern). Lewis gives these fine musicians a challenge in his arrangements and makes especially good use of the awesome artistry of Van Cleve, whose striking pop-classical flourishes add a whole new, exciting wrinkle to the Paramours’ sound. All these elements coalesce beautifully on several occasions.
The album’s most chilling moment occurs in “Widow of the Mountain,” one of two Lewis-Zamer co-writes in the tunestack. In contemplating this mountain dirge, readers might want to know that Ms. Zamer’s day job is as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, supervising a team of attorneys who try cases relating to coal mining issues (leading Lewis to refer to her as “the singing Federal prosecutor”–suffice it to say her oral arguments are most persuasive). Singing over a stark backdrop fashioned by Van Cleve’s mournful fiddling, Ms. Zamer bids a final farewell to her husband, who has been buried alive in an underground mining disaster; doubtless her understanding of the people in coal country counts for the weary, fatalistic acceptance she voices of her man’s fate, knowing that his final resting place is also a love she can’t compete with.
Equally affecting, “Heaven Is Somewhere Else” is arguably the moment when everything–music, lyrics, vocals–congeals to produce the long player’s most memorably performance. There’s nothing new in the song’s theme of the folly of the grass always seeming greener on the other side, but here the principals put a new coat of paint on it with compelling force. Along with its Beatles-ish flair in the insistent strings flowing into and out of the arrangement and the cooing background chorus, “Heaven” boasts a bright pop melody and catchy lilt, which work in contrast with a cautionary lyric warning against looking anywhere but into your heart for your personal true north, because “that’s not where the angels are/no, Heaven is somewhere else.” (On the Paramours’ website this song is described as being about agnostics; maybe it’s a song about agnostics becoming believers, as a hedge against, you know, finding out that there is a there there. At any rate, that either of these interpretations could be viable says something about the ideas in Lewis’s songs.)
The Twangtown Paramours, ‘Walk Like a Duck’
Despite some dark goings-on in this environment, the Paramours do exhibit a sense of humor. Consider Lewis’s whimsical side as revealed in the delightful “Walk Like a Duck.” No matter its levity, the song says something useful to those who need to be mindful of the message in its festive, toe tapping “don’t make me over-you don’t own me” memo complete with a barnyard beat and a country flavor as Ms. Zamer declares in a firm but lighthearted way her intention to preserve her own identity in a committed relationship.
The tender beauty “If I Fell for You” finds a guarded Ms. Zamer weighing the options of romance in a more tentative, questioning, even fearful manner than she exhibits elsewhere; the title “All the Love I Can Stand” would seem to indicate something romantic at hand, but no–the album’s first song is a biting, forthright kissoff, a sure sign from the git-go that the Paramours have a new perspective on the human comedy; two songs later, “Same Ol’, Same Ol’” emerges from a sprightly country shuffle flecked with dobro and fiddle strains to be the sound of one partner bailing on a relationship reduced to routine, Ms. Zamer announces with the slightest of cries in her voice, “I’ll be moving on ‘cause there’s noting quite as old as the same old, same old…”
The Twangtown Paramours, ‘The Promise of Friday Night’
To wrap up this journey (before the bonus track), the couple offers the somber benediction of the title tune, a piano ballad with strings hearkening back to ‘70s singer-songwriter confessionals. (Lewis even sneaks in a reference to “Desperado,” and given the title and the mood, it’s hard not to recall Tom Waits’s “Heart of Saturday Night.”) In an unforgiving Manhattan landscape, a forlorn soul whose “shining expectations flicker out like neon lights” awakens from a lost weekend to find “the promise of Friday night” has evaporated in the Sunday dawn’s early light. But at the end the lens widens and we see a panoply of the “hopeless and heartbroken” who have “shut their shades too soon.” With this arises a hope that the selfless helping hand of agape might provide a spark of life to set these outcasts on a more productive path.
One humanist touch, and a new chapter begins–and not necessarily in fiction.
The Twangtown Paramours’ The Promise of Friday Night is available for sale at the group’s website.