February 23, 2006

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The Mammals, Departure
Signature Records, 2006

The Mammals describe themselves as “subversive acoustic traditionalists,” a definition that says it all while probably not saying enough. At a recent concert at Stone Church in Newmarket, band member Michael Merenda (a local boy) told the audience that the band is often wrongly dubbed a “bluegrass band.”
“I suppose that’s OK,” he said, “because bluegrass musicians have to be able to play their instruments really well.”

Maybe a better description for the band would be “bluegrass-quality radicals who write new tunes in the traditional vein, breathe new life into standards and find new levels to modern hits.” That pretty much covers the band, as well as its latest album, Departure.

Departure is a rock album, offered up by a band that plays banjos, mandolins, acoustic guitars and fiddles. The track list is a mix of new tunes, a rehash of a South American protest anthem and covers of songs by Morphine and Nirvana. Departure is as different from the group’s earlier releases — Rock That Babe (2004) and Evolver (2002) — as can be, but is easily as good as, if not better than, anything the band has ever done. The group’s left-wing politics run as a subtle thread through this moody mix of old and new.

The question now is: what next? The Mammals has already proved itself the missing link among bluegrass, folk, hippy-jam and grunge rock. As a band, musicians Ruth Ungar, Merenda and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (the core of the group) continue to grow in new and unexpected ways, and they never fail to show a mastery of their instruments. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out their next disk is a killer jazz album. They could do it, and I’d buy it. A
— Robert Greene