Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review: A Cowboy in Seattle

Mark Pickerel and
His Praying Hands,
Snake in the Radio,
Bloodshot Records

Though I did write about the Detroit Cobras last year, I was surprised to find this CD in my mailbox. I didn't know I was on the Bloodshot mailing list...

That said, it was a nice surprise. Best known as the drummer in the Screaming Trees, Pickerel isn't as distinctive a vocalist as frequent co-conspirator Mark Lanegan (he's played on several of the other Mark's recordings), but he has a pleasant style, i.e. a pleasing voice combined with solid compositional skills. Like Lanegan, he seems to have taken a great deal of inspiration from Lee "A Cowboy in Sweden" Hazlewood, and there's nothing wrong with that--Hazlewood never goes out of style. Also, he can't be accused of trying too hard, a common problem with solo albums from longtime sidemen-turned-frontmen. In other words, this is a low-key effort, and I fear some listeners may dismiss it as boring. I'd beg to differ with that asssessment, but Pickerel is definitely taking a chance by playing his cards so close to his chest (as it were).

For the most part, these 11 tunes are relaxed, mid-tempo toe-tappers. Words like understated and tasteful also spring to mind, but Pickerel never crosses over into adult contemporary territory--which is to say, I doubt Leeza Gibbons will be praising his soothing soft-rock tendencies anytime soon. Barry Manilow, Michael Bublé, and the rest of those snoozers have nothing to fear.

And don't let appearances fool you. Despite that youthful visage, Pickerel has the well-worn voice of an old soul, like Jim Morrison if he'd lived to see 40 (or, naturally enough, Mr. Hazlewood, but in a slightly higher register). I don't mean to suggest, however, that this record sounds anything like the Doors. Far from it. There's more of an alt-country/folk-rock thing going on, which makes sense, since this is a Bloodshot release. Produced by Steve Fisk (the Screaming Trees, Nirvana, Low, etc.), who tickles the ivories on several tracks, Snake in the Radio is a promising debut.

Side note: While working at Cellophane Square in the University District (1988-1992), I ran into Pickerel from time to time.
I don't think I ever told him I was a big 'Trees fan--I was never much for the suck-up--but I was, and we always had a friendly chat whenever he dropped by. Many of the musicians involved in/around the grunge scene back then--like Lanegan and Kurt Cobain--weren't quite so open. Pickerel definitely stood out from that crowd (as did Soundgarden's Kim Thayil). I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that he'd eventually move away from it--and back to Ellensberg? I mean, I'm just speculating here.

Over the past year, I've seen him around Seattle quite often--
at a Roq La Rue opening, at a SIFF screening of Be Here to Love Me, etc.--but I've never said anything. I doubt he remembers me,
and it's not as if I got to know him very well. I don't even recall what we used to talk about, just that he was, at the time, one of
the friendliest musicians in Seattle. So, would I have written
about this record if I didn't like it? The short answer is: No.

Note: Joined by Calvin Johnson, Pickerel is featured on the Hazlewood tribute Total Lee!, which I reviewed for the AMG. 1/19/07 update: In the latest Seattle Weekly, Brian Barr compares Pickerel's music to David Lynch's films, specifically Blue Velvet. Well, at the screening of Inland Empire two nights ago (with director in attendance), who happened to be sitting a few seats away? Why, Mark Pickerel, of course! Image from Bloodshot.

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