Molly Sue Gonzalez & The Mean, Mean Men are just warming up. Singer/songwriter Gonzalez found her way from her small-town home in Ohio to Nashville a few years back and began creating a name for herself as a vocalist. When she teamed up with the Mean, Mean Men back in January this year, the band started making some noise on the Nashville rockabilly scene.
But like I said, they’re just warming up. They plan an album release of all original material sometime in 2013, but in the meantime, they’ve delivered a surprise CD of cover tunes that showcase Gonzalez paying homage to her influences.
Under the Influence is a surprise for a couple of reasons. First, the band hadn’t really intended to make this record. They were invited into engineer/producer Willie Domann’s brand new studio, The Stagger Inn, to record a few songs. The band set up and let it rip, recording three songs completely live in an hour. Everyone was so happy with those three songs that they decided to leave the tape rolling as the band tore through nine more cuts for a total of 12 completely live recordings. Nine of those 12 recordings make up the impressive Under the Influence CD, which was scheduled for release just a couple of days ago.
The CD is also a surprise—at least to me—because it’s such a strong first effort and introduction to this great band. I’m surprised because records full of cover tunes are usually not all that up my alley. And especially covers of songs that I know as well as I know most every song on this record. But on the strength of the Mean, Mean Men’s solid playing and especially the power of Molly Sue Gonzalez’s voice, I’m sold. This is a really, really good record.
Gonzalez’s voice is indeed very powerful. Her rich, strong voice powers through each song like they were written for her. And yet, she manages that power exceptionally well and evokes emotions that stretch beyond the power and into the subtle.
Gonzalez’s influences are quite clear on this record. The CD includes three songs that you’ll probably recognize as having been done by Wanda Jackson and although Gonzalez sings with a richer voice than the Queen’s, she does a nice job of evoking Jackson with growls that Jackson would be proud of.
Patsy Cline is clearly also represented here and there are times when Molly Sue sounds very much like the amazing Cline. But again, she’s not just mimicking these great singers. Instead, she’s honoring them by taking elements of their styles and working them into a style that becomes all her own.
The material on the record ranges from all-out rockabilly burners from the 50s, to the iconic Orbison ballad “Only The Lonely,” And the band nails each of them. As much as I like the rockabilly covers here, I think Gonzalez turns in her strongest vocal performance on “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” (also a Wanda Jackson tune, by the way) which slows things down enough to let her weave her vocal magic in and out of an unusual—but completely appropriate—reggae-tinged musical accompaniment.
For their part, The Mean, Mean Men also turn out incredible live performances. This record proves that great music can still be recorded the old-fashioned way with everyone doing his or her part live and leaving the overdubs for the bands with money to burn in the studio. The whole project was recorded in about three hours, so clearly there wasn’t much time for overdubs. As for me, well I certainly do not miss them! I love the pure honesty of these recordings. The band is saying, “Here’s what we got folks; we hope you like it!”
I’ve only got a couple of nitpics with this record and they’re hardly worth mentioning, but being the opinionated son of a…gun…that I am, I bring them up anyway! While, as I mentioned, Gonzalez has a growl that’s as mean as anyone’s, I think she over uses it just a touch now and then. She’s got a great voice all her own, but I get the impression that when she overdoes the growl, she’s trying to sound like someone else. She doesn’t need to because her own sound is great!
I also wanted to hear stand-up acoustic bass on several of these songs instead of bass guitar. I hope I’m not turning into one of those rockabilly snobs who doesn’t consider music rockabilly if it has an electric bass. I don’t think I am—after all, my own rockabilly band used an electric bass guitar for years and no one complained. I don’t think it’s the fact that the bass is electric that bothers me so much as that sometimes it sounds too sterile, too crisp and clear, for the music. On the older-sounding tunes, I would have buried that bass a bit deeper in the mix and given it a muddier sound. On the less rockabilly songs, the sound is perfect as is. I just would have folded it in a little differently on a few of the pure rockabilly numbers.
None of that is to take away from the quality of the bass playing itself. Bassist Vince Wynn is solid and tasteful throughout. He teams up with drummer Ryan Janac to lay a solid rhythm foundation that keeps this record moving steadily on. Guitarist John Ellis plays off this rhythmic foundation and fills in the upper end while the rhythm section drives the deep end.
But, like I said, the band is just getting warmed up. Under The Influence is a great introduction to a really fine band and strong singer. I’ve enjoyed listening to this CD and I’m really looking forward to the new record the band has planned for 2013.