Monday, May 29, 2017

Review of M+M's "Mystery Walk"

I posted this review a little earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music Website:

Review Summary: "Rest my head inside your hands/Cooling the medium/Walk me back to life again/Cooling the medium."

Martha and the Muffins (or M+M as they were calling themselves by the time they released Mystery Walk) were one of Canada's strongest contributions to the category of '80s new wave music. Although their biggest hit both at home and internationally was "Echo Beach" from their 1979 debut album Metro Music, the band had a solid career, releasing six studio albums from 1979 through 1985, then reuniting in 1992 and again in 2010 to add two more LPs to their catalog.

While many groups at the forefront of the new wave movement had their roots at least partially in punk rock, including bands such as Blondie, The Go-Go's and even the Talking Heads, Martha and the Muffins weren't one of these. They were more staid, and more in the mold of bands like The Cars or Tears for Fears, relying on slow-to-mid-tempo songs and seldom letting go and completely rocking out. They mixed elements of synth-pop, dance music and occasional jazzy saxophone or horns to create atmospheric little musical tableau's.

Mystery Walk, released in 1984, was their 5th studio album, and one of their best. It only charted at #56 in Canada and #163 in the U.S., but it did feature their second most successful single ever, "Black Stations/White Stations", which reached as high as #2 on the U.S. Dance charts. Another single from the album, "Cooling the Medium" though less successful, is still an excellent song. By the time Mystery Walk was released, the essence of the band was the husband/wife team of Martha Johnson, who took the lead vocals on three quarters of the songs, and guitarist Mark Gane, who sang lead on the others (hence the shortened name, M+M, for "Martha" and "Mark"). 

In addition to the synthesizer and the intermittent horns, there are a lot of interesting percussive elements going on throughout Mystery Walk, including varied use of electronic drums and hand percussion. "Black Stations/White Stations" is a particularly trippy song, as Johnson petitions for more intermingling of so-called "black" and "white" music on the radio, pleading "Black stations, white stations/Break down the doors/Stand up and face the music/This is 1984", and inviting them to "Dance on the ceiling with us". A later, slower number on the LP, "Come Out and Dance" also recommends the curative effects of dancing, this time as a remedy for heartache. And the somewhat cryptic "Cooling the Medium" extols the virtues of a different kind of movement, as Johnson takes a walk on the spiritual side, asking her lover to "Carry me down into the river" and "Walk me back to life again", before the last chords of the song change to those of the love theme from the 1959 romance film A Summer Place. All the while, the percussion encourages you to move along with it in a manner of your choosing.

The album also features a pair of slow and moody songs that are each, in different ways, exquisitely beautiful. "I Start to Stop" is a well-crafted musical depiction of post-breakup depression. Built largely around three notes that recur repeatedly throughout the track like a stabbing pain, the song is both delicate and occasionally dissonant. It's like a fine porcelain teacup with a slight but ruinous crack running through it. "I dial your number on the phone/I hear a voice, you're not alone/The traffic rips the night apart" Johnson sings with a quiet desperation, but in the end, there's nothing she can do but to keep repeating "I Start to Stop" until the music fades. Moving on is more difficult than it sounds.

On a somewhat happier note, "Garden in the Sky" depicts someone whose reality seems to be slipping away, as he fades into a fantasy world. The song has always made me think of the short story "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" by Conrad Aiken, although here it's lush images of garden paradises and "beaches of ivory" that seduce our protagonist away from the "real" world, rather than thoughts of a frozen tundra. "Garden in the sky/His heart is living in another place/Garden in the sky/The world around him sees a madman's face", Johnson tells us. By the last verse, though, we learn that instead of seeing the thoughts of a "madman", we've actually entered the mind of an artist who sees these images in his head in order to paint portraits of "places that will never die". 

Although the album loses some steam towards the end ("Nation of Followers", "Alibi Room" and especially "Rhythm of Life", while okay, aren't as memorable as most of the earlier tracks), Mystery Walk is still a minor treasure from a bygone decade. Much like the subject of the band's most enduring single "Echo Beach", the album is far away in time, but still close to my heart.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars