Li'l Mo & the Monicats,
On the Moon
(Cow Island, 2009)

It would take a big stone where a heart ought to be not to like -- on general principles alone -- a band calling itself Li'l Mo & the Monicats. The name is ... well, just friendly. So, it turns out, is the music, which sounds ... um, Monicattish.

On the Moon is the band's first release for Bill Hunt's Boston-based Cow Island label, whose devotion to the recharging of the hillbilly-bop sound of five decades ago has so endeared itself to me that the mere sight of a package with the label's return address gives me confidence that the rest of the day will be bathed in golden light. Indeed, Monica Passin (a.k.a. Li'l Mo) and associates made their mark on the New York City country scene -- not an oxymoron even if it sounds like one -- with precisely that kind of music. After 10 years' studio silence, however, the band returns with a fresh approach that, while retro in its own way, is distinct from its new labelmates'.

Not that Passin has abandoned country or rockabilly. Those genres are present here on four of the 11 cuts, including the gentle shuffle "I Could Get Used to This" that opens proceedings. In her most country moments she broadly recalls Patsy Cline, minus the pop-textured Nashville Sound in which Cline's biggest hits were encased. Passin is a deeply soulful country singer; witness what she does with one of two non-originals, Wayne Walker's often-covered "I've Got a New Heartache." She has a way of delivering heartbreak lyrics that puts her at some scary point at which survival through strength and complete emotional collapse seem like equally viable options at any given second. That does get your attention.

She's also pretty good at tongue-in-cheek, not-quite novelty songs such as Bill Haley's "Rockin' Chair on the Moon" and her own "He's a Handful." Elsewhere, though, she explores classic pop genres, including a couple of convincing resurrections of '60s girl-group ("Baby, Be Good" and "I Really Love [To Really Love You])," Cajun ("Dance Crazed," with veteran Louisiana musician Steve Riley on accordion and fiddle) and light jazz ("Dreamy"). The sexy, melodic "Boy Who Loved the Blues" name-checks some classic downhome blues titles -- "Kind-Hearted Woman," "Rollin' & Tumblin'," "Good Morning, Little School Girl" -- but musically is more Appalachia than Delta.

On the Moon testifies to Passin's evolving taste and sensibility, now encompassing not only country traditionalism but pop classicism. If you grew up with the styles she references, you'll be charmed. Even if you didn't, I imagine you will be, too. She isn't just channeling the material. It's all in her own voice, never less than confident, powerful and fully in charge.

review by
Jerome Clark

13 June 2009

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