Mike Mangione & The Union: Red-Winged Blackbird Man

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Mike Mangione & The Union
Red-Winged Blackbird Man
(Rodzinka)
Rating: 4 stars
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Orchestral folk/rock…  sounds pretentious, right? Not in the hands of Mangione and his four piece Union. Violin and cello provide the strings, bringing a warm yet never sappy vibe to the 10 songs on Mangione’s fourth album, and third with this band. Add veteran producer Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown, Pieta Brown, Iris Dement) whose name has never been mentioned in the same sentence as “pretentious,” for a strikingly fresh and vivid set, recorded in just 2 ½ days.

Despite the short studio time, nothing sounds rushed or tossed off as Mangione’s poetic lyrics mesh with mid-tempo melodies that shift from tough (“Cold Cold Ground”) to haunting (the nearly solo dark story “Hands are Stained”) and even rocking (the title track). The frontman’s boyish voice is an impeccable fit for this often dramatic material, balancing talk singing with a casual Paul Simon type vibe. The low key shuffle of “American Martyr” joins country, blues and folk with a subtle shuffle beat. Mangione’s snakelike guitar is heavy on reverb—a Ramsey trademark—which infuses ghostlike qualities to the winding “Somewhere Somebody.”

Lyrically, the tunes are reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s ability to describe characters in such exquisite detail that by the end of five minutes it seems as if you’ve known them your whole life. These are people and songs you’ll want to revisit and spend more time with. That’s the mark of a timeless album, which is exactly what this under the radar gem is. Play it once and you’ll be calling your friends to rave about Mangione, his chamber folk and one of the hidden musical highlights of the year.