Captivating album from an artist with an experimental edge.
Mike Pope is an interesting musician. Seemingly well established on the local scene around San Diego in particular, and Southern California in general, he has avoided making records because he doesn’t want to be tied to a genre and prefers to do things his own way. According to his press release – “Usually and hopefully, my music is ephemeral and passing and happening in moments of shared experience or personal reflection,” says the reclusive Pope, who prefers to let his music do the talking for him. “I never planned on making documents.”
It appears that this record came about because the recording company, Blind Owl, was prepared to let him make two albums, released simultaneously. One that highlights the music he’s best known for – prodigious fingerpicking guitar work that has seen him compared to the likes of Bert Jansch and Taj Mahal, alongside songwriting skills that nod towards classic americana writers such as Townes Van Zandt. The second album is designed to showcase his more experimental side and his early experiences in his local punk and hardcore communities. There are no prizes for guessing which one of the two we are reviewing!
“Songs For People (High & Low)” is a good album and you can instantly hear why Blind Owl was so keen to get this artist into a recording studio. His guitar style really is reminiscent of Jansch and album opener, ‘Mirror’, shows the quality of his guitar picking style as well as the lyrical quality of his songs, sung in a high tenor voice that gets a bit shouty at times but has generally good tone. The second track up, ‘Deep Cracked Rocks’, offers more of the same and, if anything, the fingerpicking sounds even more assured on this track. It’s on the third track of the album, ‘Teaching to Sow’, that Pope’s experimental side starts to show and it really is impressive. What sounds like some phasing and tape looping of guitar and banjo acts as the intro to the song before it settles into something reminiscent of a bit of a sing-song around a slightly spooky campfire. The whole song has a very nice unearthly feel about it and fits right into Pope’s ethos of doing things his own way, with heavy use of synthesiser, played by Orion Fergusson, as the track progresses. There’s a nice swagger to this track and you can see it going down well with live audiences. He’s an artist who clearly likes to play with textures when it comes to developing a signature sound.
The next track is back to the more simple, folky sound, for ‘Maryanne’, her first of three appearances on the track listing. A little later we get ‘Maryanne Again’ and then album closer, ‘Maryanne Again and Again’. It’s the same song but played and delivered in three different ways, with ‘Maryanne Again’ being more of a country blues while the closing version comes across like a 1920s country song. It’s a clever exercise in making one song sound like three different creations and shows Pope’s strength as a musician and the breadth of influence he draws from.
Elsewhere there’s a nice, laid-back country air to ‘St. Augustine’, with excellent fiddle playing from Clinton Davis and there’s more experimentation when we get to ‘My Gods’, which starts with laughter and then goes down a darker route, with more fine fiddle playing, this time from Anna Levitt, set against tumbling piano lines from Jody Bagley – the musicianship on this album is very good indeed and these slightly more experimental tracks really do make the listener sit up and take notice.
As mentioned at the top of this review, Pope would only agree to record this album if he could also record a more avant-garde disc at the same time. That album is called “Ripening” and, while its contents have little in common with the American folk style of “Songs For People (High & Low)” you can see how this is, perhaps, an extension of his experimental side and an outlet for the creativity that his more commercial material doesn’t give him. “Ripening” is, in many of its tracks, more a series of industrial soundscapes and tone poems than anything else and it does raise the question of where Mike Pope’s musical focus lies. Earlier there was mention of Pope’s fingerstyle guitar playing that bears comparison to that of Bert Jansch, but you can also see a comparison with John Martyn and his early use of technology, like the echoplex, in his search for a more complex sound and an escape from the rigidity of the folk format. It might serve Pope well to try to bring his avant-garde creativity and his solid folk style musicianship closer together in the future, they don’t have to be separated. “Songs for People (High & Low)” is a good album, but some of the more straight-ahead tunes can start to feel like filler after a while. Where he excites is on the tracks where the two sides of his musical nature come together. It would be nice to think that’s where his future lies.