Tom Mank,
Almost Time
(self-produced, 2000)

This independently released album from Tom Mank is a mostly acoustic album, containing a good mix of original songs and tunes. Likely to be filed in the folk section, it also has a strong bluesy feel to it. Now, this is not an album I'd recommend if you're feeling a bit down and are hoping to be cheered up. The lyrics, while insightful, are not exactly light-hearted.

Hailing from Ithaca, N.Y., Tom Mank sings and plays guitar. Sera Jan Smolen, an accomplished cellist accompanies Mank on many of the album's tracks. Dee Specker and Sandy Mandel provide some wonderful vocals, and Tommy Beers (harmonica, vocals) and Timmy Brown (electric mandolin) round out Mank's crew. Smolen and Specker have also co-written a few of the songs and tunes with Mank.

Quiet and thoughtful is the way that I would describe Mank's voice. At times, it was just barely more than the spoken word, lending a rather calming effect to his music. At times, however, I felt that his voice was being lost, as his voice was not strong enough to compete with the cello. This is not to detract from either Mank's voice or Smolen's playing -- both were quite good -- I found it occasionally distracting. Smolen is quite a talented cellist and her haunting melodies and rich tones were well suited to the lyrics of the songs.

The instrumental arrangements on this album were quite pleasing. "Baltimore the Blues" featured some excellent harmonica playing by Beers, and Mank is a very expressive guitar player. The cello and guitar complement each other well in "Almost Time," with a poignant cello melody at the beginning and end, and in "New Mown Hay," Smolen's cello plucking joins Mank's guitar for great sounding instrumentals. "Margo's Garden" is an instrumental piece featuring the guitar and cello. Again, the instruments go together well, and I liked the tune. The last track on the album was another instrumental, featuring Smolen's solo cello. I was just starting to think that I liked the tune, but then it was over! I was a little disappointed that it wasn't longer.

"Some Big Town" and "Trouble in the Neighborhood" are a pair of tunes which had a definite bluesy feel to them. They both featured the capable Tommy Beers on harmonica, and some excellent guitar strains by Mank. Although blues isn't really my thing, I imagine that others would enjoy these songs -- the instrumentals were good, and Mank's voice lends itself well to this type of song.

The tracks that I thought really stood out on this album were the ones where Mank was joined by a female vocalist. His voice blends very well with both Specker and Mandel, and the harmonies were beautiful. I was particularly fond of "Angel in the Rain." The melody was lovely, I liked the guitar and cello combination, and the lyrics (although depressing as hell) stuck in my mind. "One of Those Times," also bringing together the harmonies of Specker and Mank, had a great guitar introduction, and once again, a good melody and great vocals.

So, although I felt Mank to have a pleasant, soft-sounding voice, I felt it to be more effective in a harmony part than as the lead vocal. Of course, the songs where Mank was the sole vocalist were more often than not rather bluesy songs, which are not my preference. I enjoyed the instrumentals on the album, and especially the harmonies. Although I wouldn't recommend Almost Time as a cure for depression, the album had its merits, and Mank shows a good deal of both promise and talent as a singer/songwriter and a guitarist.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]