CD Review: "Down The Narrow"

CD: Down The Narrow
ARTIST: Mark Bates

Over the course of 11 songs of Americana and alt-country, 22-year old Hurricane native and Nashville transplant Mark Bates, on his recently released CD Down the Narrow removes not only any doubt as to his musical talents, but also, the depths of his insanity.

We were lucky enough to catch Bates open for Bud Carroll at the Glass in early 2008, back when he wasn’t even old enough to buy beer, and remember being blown away at this guy alternating between the piano and an acoustic, fronting The Vacancies, before his Lonely Town days. We came to see Carroll, but always remembered how impressed we were with Bates.

So, long story short, it’s no surprise that Bates would release a great CD, but wow, the depths of his depravity, at least lyrically, in song, know no bounds. Over the course of the first few songs worth of twangy, sometimes bluesy, piano-based Americana, Bates:

*kills a born-again, ex-felon preacher to avenge the murder of his lover (“The Promised Land”)

*hits his wife in a drunken rage, forges his kids names on Christmas cards, and then burns down the Christmas tree in the middle of town, naked, smoking a joint (“A Drunkard’s Holiday”)

*has a $20 hooker for a wife! (“Daisy”)

Nashville really changes a man.

Seriously, a nice alternate title for Down the Narrow would be Bates Motel, or, maybe, Down and Out on Blue Lick Road. But really, if Bates were ever to go postal and really hurt anyone, this CD would be the smoking gun, nail in the coffin piece of evidence for the prosecution. Much media hand wringing would ensue: “Who could miss these clues?” Not us here.

Shoot, that sounds like a Bates song right there, the logical follow-up to “Promised Land,” maybe, called “Murder was the Case That They Gave Me,” haha. Bates’ morbidly depressing lyrics might approach over-the-top hilarity, but that’s not what he’s going for. Painfully honest and insightful, beautiful lyrics? Bates has ‘em.

“Your words go into my ears/like rusted nails I’ve come to fear”...“You hug so hard with thorns on your arms/I bleed for you, and all that you are” (“Clean Through”)

The songs throughout Down the Narrow have a rich, layered feel, with Bates adding harmonica and trumpet, guitarist Duke Levine adding pedal steel, banjo and mandolin, and Michael Bellar contributing Hammond organ. Bates’ vocals alternate between soft and raspy crooning to soaring, soulful and powerful. He’s a great singer and musician.

“Shotgun with the Devil” is Bates’ fork-in-the road weary haunting descent into madness, opening with plucking banjo and piano cutting through silence; one of the standout tracks, in addition to “Drunkard’s Holiday,” on the CD. The song deftly employs soft/loud dynamics into an approaching storm, as “the clouds swallow the moon” and Bates battles his demons in an open field on a cold summer night.

“Flying Shoes” is Bates’ Townes van Zandt cover, one of his main influences. “The Show is Over” opens with soft, beautiful chord progressions as Bates’ gets “low down and lonesome,” keeping his memories in a hole. A really pretty song. Bates has the “melodramatic pop song” arrangement thing nailed down.

Down the Narrow, ably produced and engineered by Mark Thayer at Signature Sounds in Connecticut, is a very nice start to what will hopefully be a stellar career for Bates.

It’s great to see that Bates is doing well (at least we hope he is), moving his career forward out Nashville way. Remember, he’s still only 22 years old; Bates likely has a lot more great music left in him, we just hope he stays out of trouble long enough to make it.

mp3: “The Promised Land” by Mark Bates

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