Mike Campbell,
Mars Outback
(Broadcast, 2005)

There's really not much to say about Mike Campbell's proficiency as a musical performer. He has a decent range, hitting the notes just fine. His guitar playing isn't distinctive, but it certainly sounds nice. "Adequate" is an apt term to describe Campbell, but should only be taken in a positive context. No, the real strength of Mars Outback, what sets it above other folk/singer-songwriter albums, is his mastery of storytelling.

Campbell has a hearty quasi-boastful sort of voice (the type from which you'd expect a jovial guffaw) that lends itself perfectly to this type of music. He is much more of a musical storyteller than a musical performer, and while his voice isn't the most exceptional or exquisite, it certainly gets the job done.

His stories range from that of longing/remembrance ("All My Troubles Go By") to rocky relationships ("Burn That Bridge") to falling in love ("Falling in Love," natch). The sentimental "Hate to See You Go" tugs on the heartstrings, even if you don't have a daughter of your own. It reconciles a parent's love with acceptance of a child's eventual maturity and individual journey out of the parent's protection. Even a momentary mistake by a waitress makes for an entertaining story. "Back in the Clydesdale" is THE song for beer snobs across the globe (as well as a potential defamation suit by Anheuser-Busch).

His storytelling also shatters boundaries. Believe it or not, it is possible to mix science fiction with folk music. (No, he doesn't sing about a quantum singularity behind a waterfall.) In an amazing feat, Campbell successfully combines the two genres not once, but twice on this album. The narrative of "Iditarod" combines Frankenstein-level genetic engineering with racing dogs, while "Mars Outback" pontificates about frontier life on the red planet. Both songs have a slightly geeky undertone with an endearingly goofy quality.

Being a master of storytelling is not an easy quality to define; it has to do with more than just a commanding voice or a great story to tell. It's a combination of the two as well as a mysterious, intangible third quality that gets your attention. You may be tapping your foot to the tune, but that's a secondary result. The primary result is that you're listening to his words, following along with the narrative in each carefully crafted three-to-four-minute story. Mars Outback is certainly a collection of stories worth exploring.

by C. Nathan Coyle
22 July 2006

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