Tracy Bonham is highly regarded as a songwriter, musician and performer, one whose violin has backed prominent artistes such as Juliana Hatfield, Aerosmith, Eels, some of the musicians she has either written for or recorded alongside, and assisting her in the recording of her 4th album are some of Tom Waits drinking buddies. So I find myself forced to ask, why isn’t hers a name I recognise? After all, her first album, 1996’s The Burdens Of Being Upright earned her a gold disc and several award nominations, and Bonham appears to have written and recorded constantly ever since, apparently happier to follow her own instincts and maintain an artistic distance from her erstwhile collaborators, and the results of this altruistic approach to her own work make for continuously rewarding, if occasionally less than comfortable listening.
Taking its title from a Walt Whitman poem, Masts Of Manhatta is a hugely accomplished and skilfully arranged collection of songs and if there’s one thing you couldn’t accuse Tracy Bonham and her backing band of, that is playing safe in terms of influences and instrumentation, definitely. Whereas Suzanne Vega is a strictly one – guitar girl and the probable inspiration for Sheryl Crowe, Alanis Morrisette and a host of other introspective female balladeers, Tracy Bonham takes her cues from a combination of early jazz, klezmer, zydeco and classical influences, arriving at several interesting destinations simultaneously. The rhythm section veers between latino and blues time signatures and Bonham herself displays a grasp of form that has songs like “Your Night Is Wide Open” utlising several genres in the space of four minutes, shifting from conventional guitar track to Louisiana swamp jazz in under four minutes. Bonham adds a bluesy spin to the country twelve bar of of “Big Red Heart” and her violin playing lifts the song to another level entirely, while “Josephine” is based around a barn dance polka, although the emphasis is in the word ‘based’, as the song quickly twists itself into a medicine show tango reminiscent of some of Tom Waits most arcane vaudeville nightmares, and it’s a tribute to Bonham’s own skill as a performer that she is able to carry material of this strength without either appearing to compromise her own femininity or sound too intensely raucous.
So there’s a balance struck on Masts Of Manhatta between radio-friendly balladeering and more rootsy songwriting styles and playing, and this perhaps reflects Bonham’s own notion of the album reflecting her experience of dividing her time between upstate NY and Brooklyn, which appears to have provided her with sufficient material for more than one album. It’s certainly difficult to define one overall sound to the album, with each song seemingly taking a markedly different if not actually opposite direction from its predecessor. “Reciprocal Feelings” is an affecting piano ballad reminiscent of the softer underbelly of Heart Attack And Vine era Tom Waits back, but its baby grand reverberations provide a less than comfortable intro to the Dylanesque jugblues of of “In The Moonlight”, and the growling bass intro of” You’re My Isness” really belongs to BRMC. It’s final track “I Love You Today” that has both Bonham and her backing musicians stretching their abilities to real effect, with its swaying rhythm emerging from a combination of one-note repetitions on guitar, piano, keyboard and the end product just sounds smart, sassy, quite charming and ends only too quickly with what sounds like a cat falling off a drumkit. Just as it should really, a performer as experienced as Bonham knows the advantage of leaving her audience smiling, and several more award nominations probably aren’t too far off for an artiste whose violin playing has made her one of the most sought after side-women in the session field.
There’s an air of deliberation around Masts Of Manhatta, and I wonder if it’s the album Tracy Bonham really wanted to make. One or two of the tracks sound a bit forced in their arrangements, and I can only too easliy envisage a studio listing in which individual songs are prefixed by descriptions : (the Polka number, the Dylan number, the BRMC number, the one Tom Waits wrote, etc.) but this doesn’t detract from the album, if anything it only enhances it as, with a significant part of the albums production process actually audible, and with the musicianship never less than wholly professional, it’s difficult to find actual flaws in the project. If it sounded marginally less contrived in its range of styles, Masts Of Manhatta would sweep the Alt Country boards clean: as it stands it’s a bit overworked, awkward and occasionally inspired, and I suppose most of us know how that feels.