I have this theory that drummers who become acoustic singer/songwriters have more rhythmically interesting songs than many of their contemporaries. Michelle Mangione is another in my short but growing list of drummer-turned-guitarists that exemplify my theory.
Along with drums and guitar (steel string and nylon), Mangione plays the piano and organ, and she plays them well. Listening to Life Beneath the Sun, one would never know that it is an independent recording with only a handful of studio performers besides Mangione. The classical guitar instrumental "Interlude" shows off her chops on that instrument, just in case you hadn't figured it out by then.
Musically, she reminds me of Melissa Etheridge, but without the corporate rock sheen that has coated Etheridge's career. Lyrically, she has a lot to say in her songs. The album contains excellent instrumentation, as mentioned before, however the production is done in such a way to emphasize the vocals — a hallmark of singer/songwriter albums. Very little obscures the message and poetry Mangione is trying to convey with the songs on Life Beneath the Sun.
"America the Blue" examines some of the hypocrisy practiced by Americans who revere and support our warriors until they come home. The topic is approached from the side and not a direct confrontation. "I met a hero at my doorstep / He only did what he had to do / He surely had found the American dream come true / He reached out for a nickel with his right hand / Another long, cold lonely night and / He never felt so red white and blue…" Even the poppy, head-bopping music doesn't convey any sort of preachiness. The song is particularly poignant given the reports of conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The chorus of "Prisoner of War" is one that regularly plays on repeat in my mental jukebox. "Are you ready to release me / I am ready to be freed / You know I can't escape this feeling anymore / And if time is all it takes me / I will loosen up these chains / Just enough to make my getaway / And I won't be your prisoner of war…" I can't say I have ever been in a relationship where I have felt that sentiment, but I do like the imagery of the lyrics and the musical hook. Plus, the song incorporates one of my favorite unusual acoustic pop instruments: the accordion.
One of my complaints about singer/songwriters is that so many write songs that have a lot of "I" and "you" in them. Mangione is no different, but as a friend pointed out to me recently, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes writers need to have a period of introspection, or it could be that is where their talent lies. In this case, Mangione is able to convey all of her I's and you's in an interesting and mostly universal way, which is more than I can say for some writers.
Other stand-out songs on the album include "Anything Better," "I've Become," and "Man With a Gun." The album on a whole is a solid mix of toe-tappers and songs that make you go "hmmm…," and a few do both. Overall, I am pleased with Life Beneath the Sun. The production is well done, the songwriting is solid, and the musicians are on their game — good indicators of an album with some staying power.