Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear – Skeleton Crew

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To say Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear
have a great gimmick stretches the boundaries of understatement — a
guy in his late twenties harmonizing and switching back and forth on
lead guitar with his mother in her early sixties is likely to get press
even if their music was little more than adequate. However, the debut
album from the duo, 2015’s Skeleton Crew,
confirms that this pair get over honestly on their talent, showing
impressive skills as vocalists, instrumentalists, and songwriters. Madisen Ward
gets top billing here for good reason: his rich but flexible voice
boasts a wealth of dramatic power, and he absolutely knows how to sell
these songs, spinning his literate stories of Southern life with the
skill of a gifted actor. But if Madisen Ward is the star of the show, Ruth Ward
(aka Mama Bear) is a more than worthy collaborator: her high, sweet,
supporting vocals complement her son’s very well, and while the guitar
work here is subtle, the two players weave their instrumental lines
around one another with artful intelligence, giving the melodies a
strength that doesn’t get in the way of their folkie simplicity. And
while the duo are clearly informed by blues, folk, and gospel sounds,
they don’t land comfortably in any particular camp. These melodies may
be elemental, but they’re hardly simple; they’re a fine match for lyrics
which deal with the stuff of ordinary lives with compassion and
perception, ranging from love and war to pie and Cherry Coke. Jimmy Abbiss
production captures the interplay between the musicians very well,
focusing on the acoustic space of the voices and guitars, and providing
accompaniment that enhances the songs rather than weighing them down. If
it takes the family band angle to get Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear
into the marketplace, let it be said that far more intrusive gimmicks
have been used in the service of far less satisfying music, and Skeleton Crew is a debut with heart, soul, and fine songs to spare.

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