Review by Kent Manthie
It’s been a pleasure to listen to Mike Strain’s latest self-released EP, Your Heart is Your Home Wherever You Go; a breath of fresh air, Strain has a very steady, self-assured and just great way of writing lyrics. His are words that are polished, suave and ready for the top. Looking at www.bandcamp.com, I read, on his page, where his recordings are available for purchase as well as some biographical information, et cetera, that he has two previous releases under his belt: Demos, which came out in December of last year and Lowell, which was put out last summer (July, 2012).
But it’s this latest, 4-song EP, the only one I’ve heard so far, which is the focus here. Your Heart is Your Home Wherever You Go is a finely tuned work of art; a self-aware, introspective, softly spoken album that is brutally honest and musically well-made. The four tracks on Your Heart are: 1)“Making War”, 2) “TV Set”, 3 “Negatives” and 4) “Cigarette Burns”. The opening cut, “Making War” is the shortest of the quartet of tunes on the EP, but has a great acoustic atmosphere to it. It starts out with a nice fresh air of guitar strums which precede his voice chiming in, harking back to an earlier time, back when he was just a kid when him and a friend were in the backyard “making war” and the friend trips and falls, smashing his head on a rock, then bleeding and hurt, scaring Mike to where he runs in the house for help, crying in despair. Then, the song goes on to account for this imprint having left its mark on his psyche and the irony of his own young-age situation mirroring the world-at-large, with its own negative, violent sense. The twice-as-long “TV Set” is about the ambivalence about the medium which attacks with its advertising, bland shows and propagandistic programming, but which no one, it seems, can do without; it’s cathode ray tube-as-hypnotic-sedative. We watch, watch and watch. Strain, however, manages to put his own personal spin in the mix, which gives a fresh perspective rather than another polemic against the mass hysteria and confusion that dopes us up. “Negatives” and “Cigarette Burns” are also personal songs wherein the songwriter gets to let loose his inner thoughts and memories.
Mike Strain is a transplanted Northerner – grew up in Western, Massachusetts and now lives in Atlanta. He has been working hard at shaping his thoughts and ideas into simple yet idiosyncratic tunes. Besides having a good voice and a knack for songwriting, Mike’s been playing the trumpet since he was six. It’s the trumpet, as well, which shows up throughout the songs as an almost dissonant part of the mix, which otherwise includes guitar, bass, piano and drums. I don’t mean dissonant in the sense that it disrupts the groove or clashes at all, but in a good light – it stands out, it’s like a personal signature. He’s not the first or only one to have a brass instrument -trumpet, French horn, trombone, et cetera, but it certainly isn’t a common factor nor is it expected. Where it pops up on Your Heart it gives a certain exclamation mark to the rest of the background.
The final cut, “Cigarette Burns” is a good example of a great use of the trumpet – it is used in a sparing, background way, almost percussive rather than melodic even though it does both.
While listening to this EP, I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favorite solo artists, also a brave, honest, intelligent songwriter, Mike Kinsella, who was in the band Cap’n Jazz some 16-17 years ago, a band which eventually morphed into what is now Joan of Arc, even though JOA has had many different line-ups throughout its existence. Mike’s brother, Tim, is its only permanent member. From Chicago, Joan of Arc has been a workhorse whose various members, including Tim, have also been in various other bands and done solo work – people such as Cale Parks, the aforementioned Owen (Mike Kinsella), Owls, American Football and many others. A good example of all the other bands and artists that have members who’ve been with Joan of Arc at one time or another is the 2010 CD, Joan of Arc Presents: Don’t Mind Control, wherein there are 18 songs by 18 different bands/artists, all with one thing in common: they’ve all been in the revolving door that is Joan of Arc. Anyway, I take this little detour because, as I wrote, I was reminded a lot of Owen’s material – he/they have come out with around 8 or 9 releases, including both EPs and full-length CDs. It was his 3rd full length, I Do Perceive which is when I first discovered Owen and fell in love with the music on that particular CD. It is not so different from what Mike Strain has accomplished with his sparse-but-full sounding atmosphere of loneliness. The other thing that made me think of Owen was the well-played music, the guitar, the trumpet, etc, on Strain’s EP and the wonderful guitar work and drumming that Kinsella does. I wouldn’t know if Mike’s heard of Mike (ha ha) but seriously, if one is a fan of Owen then one should seriously listen to Your Heart is Your Home Wherever You Go.
This whole EP, listened in its entirety, not piecemeal, is a dynamic, flash of melancholia that is soothing, meditative and let’s one drift into the subconscious. What it lacks in length it makes up for in quality. But I’m hoping that there’s a full length CD in the cards for the not-too-distant future. Give it a listen! -KM