Mean Mary (also known as Mary James) is anything but her namesake. When you listen to her latest album release, Cold it’s hard to imagine a mean bone in her body as her music is filled with a love and warmth that betrays her name.
Cold has a largely naturistic feeling to it that deeply echoes the nomadic lifestyle that James has lived over the years. Songs like Dark Woods and Snow Falling are likely nods to the altruistic childhood she received, travelling from place to place with her family and at one point living in the inhospitable wilds of North Minnsota in a tent for several months while her parents built a log cabin by hand for the family. This life, a life free from basics such as electric and running water encouraged the family to while away the hours reading by lamplight or exploring their surroundings and living on what they find. Her career however was charged when her older brother who had joined the navy sent the family a guitar and a collected tape of his favourite songs and this was the trigger that was needed for the ignition of an undying fire in James’ heart.
Coming from such a background, it’s little wonder that Cold focusses in on the simplistic beauty of nature and with broad strokes she is able to hone in over a lifetime and conjure an overwhelming abundance of imagery within your mind. Her tender words couple with the delicate guitar strings, tinkling piano melodies and the dancing banjo tunes that she employs to summon a surge of emotion that comes gushing through your heart. Her deeply haunting, tremulous vocals are soulful, emotional and lay her soul as bare as a new born babe. With a voice that harnesses such passion and emotion it becomes entirely wonderous, like wandering a snow-strewn landscape entirely comprised of the unknown and veiled darkness. Yet there is no fear there. There is no pressure or danger in this unknown. In fact, it seems as if James is taking us on a dreamy, heartfelt journey through the depths of the night and the damp of the woods, but lighting our every footstep with her warm and gentle lullabies.
Cold is an album that much like the ‘mean’ in Mary’s name, doesn’t live up to its own expectations. It is instead an album that is undeniably warming, like a drop of brandy on a crisp winters afternoon. The cold atmosphere is unarguably there but James is the antithesis to this, her kindness and warmth shining through her every trembling note eking its way into your heart.
Review by Joe Knipe