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Mike Stinson & Johnny Irion (from the album Working My Way Down on Blacking Records) (By Lee Zimmerman)
There’s a certain archival element that plays a part of this collaboration between longtime pals Mike Stinson and Johnny Irion. They once worked together in a California Roots Rock outfit formed more than 30 years ago. Since then, each has gone on to procure a productive solo career — Irion as the former frontman of the North Carolina-based band Queen Sarah Saturday and as the ex-partner, both personally and professionally, of Sarah Lee Guthrie, while Mike Stinson played with Lucinda Williams and Christina Aguilera as well as providing songwriting contributions to Dwight Yoakam.
Consequently, their decision to reconvene after a quarter of a century makes this an auspicious offering. Adding to that vintage antecedent, the album was recorded at a studio that contained a historical Studer analog twenty-four-track, two-inch tape machine Johnny Irion had acquired from Jackson Browne, following its employment in Browne’s home studio for the past thirty years. Consequently, with Irion playing guitars, piano, and harmonica, Stinson on drums and acoustic guitar, and the two of them sharing vocals and the songwriting credits, there’s a natural synergy between past and present. The fact that the album was recorded for Blackwing Music, an outgrowth of a famous pencil brand that went defunct in the mid ‘90s around the time the two men first worked together, finds this reunion all the more auspicious.
That said, there is a decidedly downbeat tone to many of the album’s offerings, as indicated not only by the sprawling title track, but a decidedly pessimistic perspective overall. ‘I’ve paid more dues than a man should have to pay’ the two declare on the frenetic opening track “The Bottle and Me”, an obvious ode to the delights of drink. That downcast demeanor continues unabated with the plodding “The Only Friend I Ever Had” thanks to the narrator’s remorseful wail, ‘I know I traded my mystique for a longtime losing streak’. Then there’s the further furtive lament of “L.A. Cowboy”, which finds the pair confessing ‘I spent my last dollar for another round’, which again is hardly a helpful sign.
Granted, there are plenty of upbeat entries to balance the despair — the rocking “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis”, the rollicking “Stranger Here Myself”, and the rousing “Brand New Love Song”, not to mention the supple sway that underscores “Last Chance to Hide from Love” and the easy lope that embellishes “Ponderosa Pine”. That said, it’s hard to avoid the downright despair that permeates much of these proceedings.
Given the fact that the two opt for such an arcane execution, that tears-in-the-bears sentiment might be easily understood. On the other hand, it’s also clear that Working My Way Down is essentially a means of working their way back up. (by Lee Zimmerman)
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