Bristol's Michael Chorney has worn several musical hats over the years. A talented bandleader, composer, producer, instrumentalist and arranger, he's among the Green Mountains' most versatile artists. With Mother Tongue, Chorney makes his first foray into the singer-songwriter genre. The results are nearly as strong as anything he's tried before.
Mother is a stripped-down affair, with Chorney's intimate baritone vocals and muted guitar providing the main points of focus. There are a few guest appearances, however: Chorney's Magic City bandmate Miriam Bernardo lends her sultry voice to four tunes, while Anaïs Mitchell and Peg Tassey turn up on a track each. Bob Wolk provides banjo and harmonies on a song as well.
The CD gets started with the lovely "Joyce," which is built on placid, finger-style guitar. "They always took the back roads when they drove up every year / The afternoon was clear / they stopped for gas and cigarettes, sandwiches and beer," Chorney softly sings. It's a little like Raymond Carver moonlighting as a backwoods folkie.
The instrumental "Bells" features Chorney's "treated guitar," the hallmark of which is gamelan-like, percussive tones. The brief track provides a link between Chorney's embrace of trad song structures and his more avant-garde leanings.
"Dirty Steps" features gentle strumming, backed by upright bass and a bed of female harmonies. Wisps of brass drift by as Chorney delivers impressionistic prose in a near whisper.
Only one tune on Mother Tongue doesn't work, and that's "Russian Poet." The song apes Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits a little too closely for comfort. Reproducing Waits' singular sound is no small feat, but it seems beneath Chorney, a unique talent in his own right.
"Waltz" is another brief instrumental. Its mournful lilt serves as a fine intro to "Bitter Seeds," an exhortation to openness in the face of cynicism. "You tell me Jesus never helped you / Mary never did a thing / You killed the Buddha as instructed / There's no song you care to sing," Chorney intones. Later, he offers a recipe for transcendence: "If you open up your heart / Open up your mind again / Open up your mouth to sing / Wonder what you might find, my friend," he sagely croons.
The album closes with "Nothing Is Pure," which features a humble chord progression and Bernardo's rich harmonies. "Nothing is pure / Nothing is simple / Nothing important / Nothing will last," the two sing in a blissful ode to emptiness.
It's always a treat to hear what Chorney is up to, but I wouldn't have predicted his latest turn. Guess you could call Mother Tongue a pleasant surprise. Hear him at Burlington's Radio Bean on Friday, Sept. 22.