Review: Mike Pope Creates a Dynamic Double Debut

Mike Pope/Songs for People High & Low/Blind Owl
3.5 out of five stars
Ripening/Ain’t It Strange/Blind Owl
Three out of Five stars

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It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for an artist to unleash two albums simultaneously, given the fact that one would have to assume that the demand equates with desire. In Mike Pope’s case, however, he’s relatively unknown, making the fact that he’s sharing a double debut all the more auspicious.

Nevertheless, there’s a surreptitious side to Pope’s pronouncements, one that finds him cloaked in nocturnal trappings and a subdued sound that’s earned him comparisons to Bert Jansch, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and others that specialize in absolute folk finesse. Songs for People High & Low is a solo album in terms of both its execution and arrangement, with Pope generally providing the predominant instrumental additives for each of these twelve tracks. Not surprisingly then, the music is shimmery and subdued, with Pope’s vocals maintaining a generally low-lit gaze. “Shooting Star” is the sole exception, its attempt at more upbeat engagement momentary at best. The remainder of the record is, by turns, seductive, sensual, and, in a decided sense, quietly compelling. One song, “Maryanne,” is shared in slightly altered form three times, while another, “My Gods” sounds like a dreamy redo of the traditional tune “Wild Mountain Tyme,” with an added ethereal allure. Granted, these Songs require repeated listens, but the rewards are worth the increase in commitment. 

That said, Ain’t It Strange is decidedly different, and in many respects, true to its title.  Recorded as part of a trio called “Ripening” that also includes musicians Peter Hirsch and Billy Coughlin, along with omnipresent synth from Orion Ferguson, it’s a noisy and provocative affair, one filled with obtuse outbursts meant to jar the senses and create ample agitation. Songs such as “Colleen,” “I Looked High and Low” and “I’m Free” are particularly prominent in that regard, but practically every song makes an emphatic impression courtesy of a searing sonic palette and a series of experimental outlays. The contrast between the two albums couldn’t be greater, but then again, it serves to shore up Pope’s proficiency as an artist of daring and defiance.

Ultimately, those qualities add to the allure.

Photo by Kristy Walker / Devious Planet

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