Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
The title of this Kansas City bred mother and son duo’s debut may not say it all, but it implies a lot. Two unplugged guitars, two voices and that’s pretty much it, stripping this tough folk and folk/pop down to its skeleton crew elements. Producer Jimmy Abbiss adds basic percussion, occasional organ, a lone cello, sporadic bass and little else, preferring to let the natural charm of Ward and his mother carry the load.
That’s all this delightful twosome needs. The melodies for the singalong likes of the opening “Live by the Water,” the jaunty “Daisy Jane,” “Silent Movies” and “Modern Day Mystery” are effortlessly catchy. Along with a homespun approach, the vibe is as organic and natural as if they were recording on their back porch. Ward takes the bulk of the leads-both vocal and guitar– leaving Mama Bear to strum along and provide backing vocals. The effect is uncluttered and unvarnished in its directness.
Story ballads like the unusual love tale of “Undertaker and Juniper” and the mournful “Way Down in Mississippi” (featuring one of Mama Bear’s few lead vocals) display the pureness and simplicity of these performances. They are enlivened by inspired playing that makes up in feel for what it loses in a more ornate production that would likely have sucked the life out of these tunes. The rootsy, earthy sound and general upbeat tempos occasionally obscure darker lyrics such as those in “Big Yellow Taxi” (not the Joni Mitchell song) that addresses issues of poverty and homelessness. At over seven minutes, the mysterious “Fight On,” seemingly about a soldier’s misfortunes, is the album’s longest, gloomiest and most melancholy selection. It shows the duo isn’t afraid to tackle more expansive topics and let the music swell appropriately.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear’s unique mother/child musical collaboration is never stilted or exploited for cheap effect, and the natural synergy between the two creates affecting, unadorned music with the emotion and staying power only a family can conjure.