You might not know it, but somewhere between pop and jazz lies a quirky alcove and if you dare to go there, you’ll find Karen Mantler thriving.
Composer, vocalist, pianist and harmonica player Mantler has impeccable pedigree: the offspring of elite avant-jazz composers and band leaders Michael Mantler and Carla Bley, Mantler has shown the adventurous nature of her parents, but at the same time finds inspiration from classic pop and show tune composers who preceded them.
Business Is Bad is Mantler’s first album in fourteen years, following a spurt of activity that begun with a trilogy of albums themed around her cat Arnold, and a fourth one that used the search for a new pet as its unifying topic. Mantler used an electric band and a bank of backing vocals to shape the sound of these recordings, and her dry, deadpan humor made these records goofy fun that get by on charm, wit and an ear for melody; America’s answer to Robert Wyatt, if you will. That’s no wild claim, either: she was a collaborator with Wyatt for his superb Cuckooland album.
Business strips down the accompaniment down to herself on piano and harmonica, Kato Hideki on acoustic bass and Doug Wieselman on guitar and bass clarinet, and Mantler isn’t singing about domesticated animals anymore. But nothing else has changed about her, she is still a master at spinning first-person narratives about little situations and getting straight to the emotional heart of them without getting overly emotional about them. Mantler is no crooner, but crooning would ruin her songs. Her dispassionate delivery brings authenticity to the lyrics by not trying too hard to be convincing.
Coy, unpredictable lyrical turns are found everywhere: her English lines are followed by the spoken French equivalent ones, and the roles are reversed, suggesting she’s learning to “Speak French.” The profane word dropped on “Catch As Catch Can” might arch an eyebrow in this setting, but is there really a more natural way to express sympathy with homeless people who want to hunt for game in the park and make it rhyme with “duck”?
Elsewhere, Mantler tries to cope with inconveniences big and small, from staving off bankruptcy (“Business Is Bad”) to facing insurmountable legal fees (“I Can’t Afford My Lawyer”) and pouting about a flight delayed due to volcanic activity in the path (“That Damn Volcano”).
Proving she doesn’t lean too heavily on humor to make her songs appealing, Mantler puts wit aside for the somber numbers “Wintertime,” and “Surviving You,” and brilliant, polished melodies remain. Even lyrics are largely put aside for “My Solo,” where she readily admits, “I find it hard to improvise” before doing just that on harmonica. The best improvising moment, however, might be from Wieselman’s Eric Dolphy wails during the instrumental break on “Volcano”
As a collection of children’s songs for grown-ups, Business Is Bad would be terribly silly if it wasn’t so damned inconspicuously clever. Thankfully, it is clever, and marks the return of Karen Mantler after nearly a decade and a half off without skipping a beat.