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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Music Review: Mark Olson Finds Salvation in His Blues

Mark Olson: "Drive safe now!"

Mark Olson's new album The Salvation Blues has the feel of 1970, a time when country outlaws were finding the freedom of folk in the sounds of Nashville and in the liberating blast of nascent country-rock like The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Olson's former band The Jayhawks also captured this feel on their two greatest albums Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass which should come as no surprise as Olson wrote many of the songs on those albums.

The kinship in sound should also be no surprise as Salvation is Olson's first stand-alone solo disc and former bandmate Gary Louris pops in to harmonize on three tracks. This makes The Salvation Blues feel like something of a return for Mark Olson despite the several records he released with now ex-wife Victoria Williams since leaving the Jayhawks in 1995 .

The songs are strong and timeless, often backed like "National Express" with a bed of shimmering steel guitar. The plaintive organ on "Look Into the Night" and sweet mandolin on "Poor Michael's Boat" complete the time warped feeling. It's appropriate that Olson has a song here called "Sandy Denny" as Fairport Convention is an obvious touchstone.

The Salvation Blues is described on the cover as a "...journey through the heart of loss and redemption..." and Denny's story is suffused with the kind of sadness and grim acceptance of fate that so many of these songs embrace. "Another cup of brutal wine..." Olson sings on "Winter Song" and the ghost of Denny seems to haunt Olson's outlook, understandably. Denny left Fairport Convention in 1970 and never reached the artistic heights solo that she had reached with her band. The end came too soon in 1978 when she died after falling down a flight of stairs. Certainly Olson doesn't want the same judgement of "You never should have left your band" that was handed down to Denny by many music fans and critics.

Thankfully The Salvation Blues proves that Olson solo can be just as vital a songwriter and performer as he was in The Jayhawks and provided he holds onto the handrail going down the stairs there is no reason his fate should mirror that of Sandy Denny.

Also of note is Hacktone Records beautiful packaging, designed as a book with its own slipcover and liner notes by Michele Gazich (identified here as a violinist and professor of literature). There are small illustrations or photographs to accompany the lyrics on the inside of the "book" and the overall effect is charming and quite pleasing.
Here's a bit of a documentary on Olson that's in the works including a live performance of new song "The National Express" at the now sadly defunct Mo' Pitkins in New York.

The Salvation Blues gets four out of five Sandy Dennys:

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