Frontier Psychiatrist

Tracy Bonham: Stand Up, Brooklyn! (Best of FP 2010)

Posted on: December 22, 2010

Tracy Bonham does not sing about skyscrapers, Dutch explorers, or Native American linguistic variations on her new release Masts of Manhatta. She does, however, deliver a solid multi-instrumental performance with songs about wistful summer romance, moving to the suburbs, and balancing life between cityscapes and country roads.

The title of the record comes from the famous Walt Whitman poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and, according to Bonham, reflects how perspective on urban living crystallizes as you slowly sail away from the city. The idea arises from experience: Bonham divides her time between Brooklyn and Woodstock. (Remember in Whitman’s time, Brooklyn was THE suburb.)

Tracy Bonham: City Mouse, Country Mouse

The appeal of this effort is not so much what Bonham says but how she says it. Like Whitman, she dispenses with iambic rhyme scheme and bends words to fit the rhythm of the music.  For example, note how “popsicles” behaves like a valid rhyme for “asshole” and listen to the way she plays with the vowels in “country” and “sushi” in one of the strongest tracks, “We Moved Our City to the Country.”

Tracy Bonham, “We Moved Our City to the Country”

Besides Bonham’s mastery of syntax and diction combined with pitch, this record is a fine musical production. The strength of many tracks stems from her band –notably veteran guitarist Smokey Hormel who has played with Beck, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits. Producer Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Suzanne Vega, Brazilian Girls) makes some adventurous decisions that pay off, notably in the Waits-like tango-tinged “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend.”

Tracy Bonham, “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend”

We finally get to hear Bonham’s violin at the fore in “Josephine.” The instrument got the young songstress started, and her skill earned her a full scholarship to University of Southern California. Although she didn’t follow that path to its conclusion, we still get a taste of the talent as she playfully duels with Hormel in a distorted back and forth.

Tracy Bonham, “Josephine”

While Masts of Manhatta may not feature any radio ready chart toppers like Bonham’s 1990s anthem “Mother Mother”, it demonstrates a musical and lyrical maturity that will inspire you to contemplate the ramifications of splitting your time between the concrete jungle and the upstate one.

Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house, or street, or public assembly!
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name! -Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

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