It’s ironic that 26-year-old Madisen Ward used to perform exclusively in coffee shops in a city called Independence in the state of Missouri, considering he formed a group with his 63-year-old mother Ruth Ward (The Mama Bear) but once you get past this cutesy novelty, there’s real charm and warmth in their evocative lyrics and an admirable efficiency to their simplistic compositions.
The family collaboration is beneficial though, because it permits raw honesty and allows them to draw strength from each other’s abilities – for Ruth, it’s her wisdom and experience (already a popular musician within her city’s circuit) and for Madisen, it’s his fresh creative ideas and intellectual songwriting. This evidence is backed up by an ideal from the tourist website for Independence: “We don’t believe in faking it. We always say what we mean. We believe good people bring out the good in other people“.
The album title itself, Skeleton Crew is appropriately idiomatic and refers to the minimum of personnel needed to operate vital functions of a business. Aside from subtle cellos and tambourines used to add weight to their thought-provoking lyrics and the British production of renowned music magician Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele, Kasabian), the coffee-shop vibe of Kansas City is still present, and it will stand out from the overwhelming disorganization of the majority of modern pop music.
Interlude “Been On A Ditch” is the most extreme example of this pure atmosphere, as it contains low-fi singing and whistling from Madisen in the depths of echoey background noise. The lyrics express ambition diluted in granulated gratitude and humbleness; a common theme on their debut album. On opener “Live By The Water“, Madisen requests for the simple pleasures in life: “All I need is a sip of cherry cola and pie” and “All I need is scenery to welcome my eyes“.
It’s a track that showcases many of their great qualities and establishing idiosyncrasies; fantastic invention and control in their non-lexical vocables, entertaining minimalism, measured vocal backbone from Ruth and the unique masculine trembling power of Madisen’s crooning. Madisen has confessed that his goal in singing is to grab the audience’s attention in the same methodology of muses Jack White and Tom Waits (you can hear the same rustiness in Madisen’s voice). The last few lines of the track make it easy to picture their live interactions and crowd participation: “Sing it again now. Tell your friends now. Everybody now“.
Although the majority of the lyrics are timeless and without a specific location as if they could easily be written centuries ago before Antonio Torres Jurado built the acoustic guitar, particular tracks tell intriguing and detailed tales, observations and state stereotypes. “Yellow Taxi” is obviously colour-coded to America (disregarding the unlikely association with India and Canada’s yellow cabs) and uses narrative effectively to portray a hopeful drifter, who dreams of sleeping in the back of a taxi as a paying customer. Madisen radiates so much personality on the song – including a last minute bluesy yelp – that you’d think it was biographical.
The duo’s expert employment of narrative is best demonstrated on the album’s highlight “Fight On“. Originally noteworthy for giving The Mama Bear solo parts of her own – where along with the fuzzy production noise, makes her sound like she’s a ghost stuck in gramophone – it progresses with the patient folk space of Simon & Garfunkel and is so intoxicating and sonically relevant that the epic time length flies by. It tells the insecurities and fears of a solider in an undefined war and the characters (his wife, his superior commanders) that fuel his perseverance but also lead him to his inevitable downfall.
On “Down On Mississippi“, the cricket chirps, frog ribbits and water puddles sounds alone are scenic of a lake at midnight, accompanied by the most dominating performance of that aforementioned extra cello – which is slightly reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi’s score of Japanese film Departures. It’s clear though that the song is firmly focused on bluntly observing the negative side to the commonly misspelled state of America. It refers to Mississippi’s famous racist tendencies: “All the laws made by Jim Crow“, crime: “bad man finds a jail to use“, heat “sores are on my feet today” and lack of truth: “the moonshine tells a tale or two“.
A bold move from Madisen Ward, that suggests he won’t be touring there anytime soon. “Sorrows And Woes” continues a similar feeling of lament dissatisfaction but of a more vague subject, whilst still desperately hanging on to the cliff of optimism: “When your legs break. You’ve still got your hands“. The inclusion of Of Monsters and Men organ and a shift to Marcus Mumford-type vocals make this their most indie-folk effort on the album but it’s also noteworthy for its clever wordplay of the title’s nouns.
In contrast to all the dreariness, the duo add a touch of humour to proceedings. The xylophonic and Lord Huron-esque “Undertaker And Juniper” sounds like a plot line from black comedy The Addams Family, as an executioner falls in love with the victim of an execution, only to become executed himself in the future. Twangy “Whole Lotta Problems” is a call-and-response song in the style of Dean Martin and Helen O Connell’s “How Do You Like Your Eggs In The Morning” and fellow Independence-native Ginger Rodgers’ collaboration with Fred Astaire on “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”. It’s a funny comment on the complications and misunderstandings between the opposite sexes and is even amusing when reading the lyrics alone. It gets the award for the best use and versatility of rhyming of the year, including, “how about the circus. The clowns make her nervous“.
Due to the abundance of multi-faceted qualities on Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear’s debut Skeleton Crew, you’ll forget about the relative quirk that initially attracted to you their music in the first place. Still, as one Kansas City located film once wisely advised, “there’s no place like home“. Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear’s Skeleton Crew album is out now via Glassnote, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs