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Mann, What a Good Recording

Hands in the Pavement (Independent)

John Mann

By Tim Roberts

A fresh slab of concrete, still wet and framed by its wooden forms, is a big temptation for kids to smash their handprints or footprints into it, or dig their initials (or even an obscenity) into it with a stick. In time, it dries and makes the kid's mark permanent, no matter how embarrassing it may be when the kid grows into an adult. Time and elements may erode the impression, but it will always remain there until it is broken up, shoveled away and another slab is poured. And another kid stops by with eager hands or a stick

Music is like that sometimes, as if melodies are already there, like fresh, wet concrete, awaiting the imprint from someone wanting to make a mark. That's what Louisvillian John Mann has done with his latest release, Hands in the Pavement. He's taken what you'd find in the best of some Americana music - acoustic guitar, dobro, soulful horns, the growl and warble of a Hammond organ and lyrics that celebrate simple joys and honest emotions - and given them his own touch. His own handprint, if you will.

The songs on Hands touch virtually every kind of sound common in the modern American songbook, from soul straight out of Muscle Shoals ("Fourth Street," which opens the recording) and front-porch folk ("Keep Me Honest"), to two-step swing ("Down to Both Ends"), clean mid-60s pop ("Lost the Reel") and straight-ahead country ("Fit to Print"). And no matter what type of song he's singing, Mann's vocals are robust, yet comfortable. He sings songs the way some poems want to sound: soft when tender and emotional, soaring when happy, growling when he means business.

For his lyrics, Mann's source material is life itself. Not the stories of the disenfranchised, not the epics of street thuggery, not the woes of having a drug-addicted or controlling girlfriend, but at the same time it isn't all sunshine and Pollyannaish optimism, either. His songs are about soldiers looking forward to coming home ("Two Dollar Wedding"), with the line "Where every day won't always look the same / And people'll call me by my first name." About the excitement of a man leaving work in the city to spend time with the one he loves, as in "Fourth Street" where he sings, "I'm getting out of his canyon to see those big, brown eyes / ... You'll be a sight to see." About someone who knows the realities of love and life as in "Promise," with the line "I want to promise you the world and all its faults." In the world presented in Mann's songs on Hands, people can hurt each other, but they live and love and enjoy the hell out of life anyway. In his world, there's no other choice.

As of this writing, Mann is finishing his first semester as a student Kindergarten teacher. For some children, Kindergarten is the first structured learning experience they have and the teacher makes an impression that they never forget. So it seems fitting that Mann is going to put his own handprint on something that will carry that impression for life: a child's mind. So he must be careful what kind of impression he's going to make.

With Hands in the Pavement Mann does the same for music. It is a recording from a guy who cares about what he communicates in his songs.

Put another way, it's from a guy who won't scrawl something nasty into the wet concrete.

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