I was lucky enough recently to grab a copy of Manitoba Hal's latest CD release - Flirting With Mermaids - and here is my report!
Canadian Manitoba Hal (Hal Brolund) is a well known face in the Ukulele Community, and bills himself as a 'Ukulele Bluesman'. UK readers may have also been lucky enough to see him at the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain last year.
In this CD release (his tenth) Hal has delivered a 15 track collection of songs, in the main self-penned, and in the main played or accompanied with ukulele. This CD has a distinct blues feel, but with one or two surprises that I rather liked.
Opener and title track Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me has Hal picking a nice ukulele blues and telling us listeners that when his days are numbered, we can save the undertakers bills and cast him into the oceans - it's a really pretty tune and for me one of my favourites on the album. Despite the sombre subject matter, Hal injects some levity to proceedings with his wonderful cheeky chuckle that precedes some of the lines.
More uke picking opens up the love song Adelyn, but it is soon accompanied by the backing band and a beautiful mournful sounding fiddle. The picked riff in this one has been stuck in my head for weeks now. But it's not all words on the album and we move on to the first instrumental track White Dog which sounds with about as simple a strum pattern as you can imagine before moving in to some sublime picked bouncy blues that actually found me thinking of some early UK Folk Rock a la Fairport Convention.
Learned Pigs And Fireproof Women is the albums first wall of sound type track showcasing how I prefer Hals voice - dark growling blues in which Hal tells the story of the Carnival sideshow which contain (amongst other things, 'a piece of the one true cross and the bones of the Union boss'). There is much more backing on this track and the lead amplified ukulele riff adds to the dark imagery. In fact an interesting point here - when I first put the review up I was totally convinced that the album had electric guitar in it. You will see from the comments after the review that Hal had me fooled - and that was part of his plan! I've left the comment deliberately as I'll be interested to hear from other listeners whether they thought the same as me!
Next track is another highlight for me, and a departure from straight up blues as Hal moves into Cajun style in Down In Pubnico - complete with French lyrics and accordion. This really has the toe-tapping!
We move on to a cover song - Big Joe Williams, Baby Please Don't Go (perhaps more famously covered by Van Morrisson amongst others) but delivered by Hal in a wonderfully understated, slowed version with just a bit of picking and his blues growl replaced with a much softer sweeter refrain. A great version of this standard.
We move on to Turn Out The Lights, a slow strummed old time love song, accompanied only by harmonica. It's a sweet little tune, but has had that 'radiophonic' lo fi mono effect applied to Hals voice - I can see what he was trying to achieve, but think I'd like to have heard it without the effects which was a slight shame.
Now, lets not forget this is an album dominated by ukulele, so how could Hal not give us something more of an 'island feel' - My Creole Belle delivers this complete with a horn backing and dub bass. One to listen to when lying on a beach this one!
Tastes Like Chicken delivers the light hearted interlude in which Hal asks us why every other unusual meat is always said to taste like chicken, sung over a country blues backing complete with call and refrain vocals. I'm not against such funny songs, but I thought it felt a little out of place on the album if I am honest. That said, I am told that Hal is a light hearted fella, so who am I to judge?
Back to pure lo-fi, raw blues on Way Down In The Hole - and another highlight for me - a gospel tune delivered with growling vocals over a blues lead. A track that will have Tom Waits pricking his ears up at it's delivery (and he should know, he wrote it!). And from raw electric blues we move to the gospel song Keep On Singing - backed with picked acoustic with a superb riff that has also got stuck in my head - think early Bert Jansch and you get the idea.
Another cover in the Merle Travis spiritual track Sixteen Tons - more shades of Tom Waits on this version which is unlike any version of this you will have heard - very nice muted blues lead and an absolute howling screaming vocal from Hal which was quite superb and fitted the subject matter perfectly.
Another instrumental in the intriguingly titled Incredible Bread Washing Machine ( I have no idea..) - delivered on uke and picked to perfection - I could listen to this one all day and reminds me of some of the instrumental tracks recorded by Nick Drake.
Back to the islands again for the duet with Shawna Caspi in Across The Sea - beautifully delivered and and had me reaching for a cocktail! Really sweet and evocative and another standout.
The album ends on a sombre tone in The Thrill Is Gone a very slow mournful blues delivered with just uke, vocal and a bit of bass. I think this track may have been better placed earlier in the album as I'd been having so much fun listening to the rest of it that this brought a rather sad end to the experience. It's nicely delivered though, but perhaps felt that the album should end on a high.
So, in summary - I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to this album. Sure, it's mainly blues based, but there is a lot of variety in here too. Some may prefer Hals growling brooding vocals to his softer sweeter style (as I do) but some may like the opposite and they both work. His uke playing is superb and one thing that really stands out is the amazing power he gets into his picking and bending - really good stuff. For me there were one or two minor misses, but on a set of 15 tracks that is pretty good going I think. This is a set of songs from someone who is clearly an accomplished musician and someone who understands the blues in all its many forms. Recommended and if you can get the chance to see Hal play, judging by this offering I don't think you will be disappointed.
RECOMMENDED DOWNLOADS - Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me, Down In Pubnico, Way Down In The Hole, Across The Sea.
|credit - Lisa D Buchanan|
1. Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me
3. White Dog
4. Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women
5. Down In Pubnico
6. Baby Please Don't Go
7. Turn Out The Lights
8. My Creole Belle
9. Tastes Like Chicken
10. Way Down In The Hole
11. Keep On Singing
12. Sixteen Tons
13. Incredible Bread Washing Machine
14. Across The Sea (feat. Shawna Caspi)
15.The Thrill Is Gone