A more than passable debut, but the music needs to catch up with the words and their ambition next time.
Long Mama are led by singer songwriter Kat Wodtke, on what they describe as “a haunting journey of wide-open spaces and tight spots, each song blistering with heart and grit”. ‘Poor Pretender’ is their debut album, and was recorded live in the studio over the course of a weekend.
There is certainly a live feel to the sound, which is for the most part dominated by the electric guitar of Andrew Koenig. This give the opening songs, the title track and ‘Half Love’ a similarity that makes them blend into each other somewhat. Following that with 3 ballads of decreasing speed and increasingly sparse arrangements does give unfairly gloomy feel to the opening half of the album.
‘The Narrows’ livens things up with its stop start structure. The slower more atmospheric songs return after that. There is a Cowboy Junkies flavour to the slow stately progress of songs like ‘Dust and Gravel’. By far the best of these is closing song ‘Lonerman’. Breaking up the slow songs again is ‘Take It Out’, which shuffles along on a relaxed groove, which also contains the best guitar solo on the album, and some interesting upright bass from Samual Odin. This is a thank you song to the people who helped Wodtke grieve and get through the painful loss of a close friend. The most successful song on the album is the most straightforward country styled song, ‘Clean Break’, which keeps enough of the sparse production to suggest this a way forward for them to find an original sound.
Wodtke’s lyrics tend to the dark. ‘Badlands Honeymoon’ is “a tall-tale turned nightmare, a sort of alternate history where only one person made it out of a backcountry adventure”. ‘Lonerman’ follows two troublemakers through a cold, rustbelt city. “The song begins as sparse and lonesome as these solo wanderers until their lives eventually collide in a bit of a dumpster fire.” The best of her lyrics hint at the sort of noir short story that Willy Vlautin does so well.
As a debut ‘Poor Pretender’ does well enough. It is substantial enough to make it a good listen, and hints at better to come. Focusing on song structure rather than atmospherics would certainly help. Understanding how Cowboy Junkies employ texture, and light and shade in their music would certainly help them, as I suspect would a slower recording process giving them time and space to consider their choices. It is understandable that they might want to get a first album recorded quickly and cheaply and it does work, but next time they need to develop and expand the dynamic range of the music to turn in something great.