THE MAPMAKER'S DAUGHTER
Red Parlor Records
One of the leading lights of Brooklyn, NY's vaunted roots music scene, M Shanghai's gimmick early on was playing in the basement of a Chinese restaurant, not the likeliest place to hear old-timey string band music no matter from whence it emanates. From such an inauspicious, if totally cool, start, the G-11 (group of eleven) pickers and singers have gone on to impress festival and concert audiences, while still holing up on Saturday nights in the restaurant basement they're making famous locally. The Mapmaker's Daughter, the group's third long player, shows precisely the strengths and weaknesses of M. Shangai and underscores how close the assembled multitude is to delivering something transcendent ahead.
The positives here, many and impressive, are found in the music itself—tight, driving, empathetic, nuanced and dynamically rich. Banjo, mandolin, fiddles, guitars, resonator guitar, washboard, spoons, harmonica (Dave Pollack really gets it going on the brisk album opening title track) and the solid, thumping bass of Harrison Cannon comprise the instrumental lineup, and all are deployed imaginatively and with a deft dynamic touch, such as the unaccompanied fiddle grinding away anxiously behind the female vocal on "Groundhog's Day," setting a gripping, tense atmosphere before the song begins a furious sprint to its close, even incorporating a chirping pop-style female chorus for a few bars that adds an unexpected but delightful buoyancy to the exercise. Similarly, in "Sun Is Gone," the blend of shimmering fiddles, pop choruses, the hesitating mandolin-guitar riffs and Pollack's trebly, crying harmonica lines evoke the day's soothing, meditative denouement. And when the occasion demands a full-on charge, everyone steps up to put the "hard" into the hard driving delight titled "Gallow Bird," which features some absolutely red-hot fiddling, howling harmonica and a bracing eruption of clacking spoons along the way as the song springs up and down cross country with breathtaking stamina and precision. There's even an uncredited clarinet and saw injecting a playful spirit into the sassy, double-entendre gem, "Cookie Jar."
If only the vocals were on a par with the playing. Too often the singing sounds unengaged, emotionally flat, studied, not felt. Dynamically, "Meteor Storm" is so rich, the music rising urgently between verses, retreating into reflection during the verses, but the male-female duet sounds rather blasé by comparison, not quite there. In the whimsical backhanded tribute to the married life, "Gadzooks" ("Now that I'm married I always know the score/Oooh-oooh, dammit man, you snore!"), the male vocalist delivers a bloodless reading of the lyric, "Gadzooks, man, sure am glad I'm married/Mmm-mm, sure do love these chains," that you know a Darrin Vincent—or a Rhonda Vincent for that matter—would turn into a high comic moment with a bit more twist of the phrasing to heighten the irony. The female singer closing the album with the melancholy heartbreaker, "Windsor County," has the right idea with a languorous vocal, a listlessness you might expect from someone who's been unceremoniously dumped, but she comes up a tad short in the expressive mode when a bit more heat is needed, as in the lyric, "Now you call me when you know I'm not home/and you're talking all of your nonsense/but it doesn't matter anyway/'cause I can't hear/there's that bottle blocking my ear." This is all very subjective, and M Shanghai has a devoted following in its local precincts that would vehemently disagree with such an assessment, but an A/B test with some of the fine traditional singers around yields some pretty good evidence to buttress this argument. Still and all, M. Shanghai can play with pretty much any band out there, and with a bit more commitment, or a less cautious approach, on the vocal side, good things are going to happen. —David McGee