SonofMel makes music from world-weary travels

by Richard Thomas

Rickie Lee Jones’ song “Last Chance Texaco,” off her 1979 debut album, uses the setting of endless, desolate roads to evoke the ache of loneliness. I had the album on 8-track and it kept me company on a solo road trip from Cleveland to Wyoming around that time, one that involved a lot of wide open space, crazy weather and sketchy hitchhikers. (Being alone is sometimes preferable.) The entire album is great, but I especially wanted “Last Chance” on repeat play. 

Cue forward a few decades and now we have an entire album of great road-trip songs from a guy named John Adler, who calls himself SonofMel. I don’t know who Mel is other than his dad, or maybe his mom who is named Melanie, or maybe it’s a folksy name for God. In any case, he digs deep into the desolation and comes up all the more stronger.

The album was released over a year ago. Sorry to discover it only now, but considering it took three years to make and is the product of “20 years of wandering the globe,” according to the liner notes, I’m not that late to the party. Especially if it’s a party of one, be it the musician himself or the listener on a long, lonesome drive.

Adler hails from Hayward, Wis., which he refers to as “Wayward.” He tours the region and makes frequent stops in the Twin Ports, often performing with Jordan Grunow, “The Slideman.” Grunow doesn’t appear on this album, alas, though nearly a dozen other excellent musicians do, among them Peter Sands on keys, Justin Rieken on bass and Peter Anderson on percussion. Anderson is also the producer, and, judging from the way this album sounds, an accomplished one.

B Marie, who also did the beautifully rustic cover art, gets credit for playing a “vintage Mattel music box,” the plunkety thing that opens the album with a few bars of, oddly, “London Bridge.” But even that has weight, adding to the theme that nothing lasts forever. (London Bridge is falling down, see.) That leads into the first track, “Bad Dreams,” which is inspired by a visit to Anadolu, a region that is now Turkey. Adler references its 5,000-year history of war, destruction and regrowth: “The children see the flames, they all know who to blame.” As in all the tracks, the complex and often brilliant lyrics are suitably clear.

“All Hallows’ Eve” takes the anxiety to present day: “The president of the world has a billion arms, clamors for more, claims he can’t do enough harm, so this year for Halloween I’ll only lock my door.” The slow pace starts out with only guitar and Adler’s spoken words, then gradually adds other elements: electric guitar, horns, bass and drums. It ends just as it starts to get catchy, leaving you wanting more.

“Tarlabashi Shuffle,” a faster piece with a full band, returns the subject to Turkey, where he apparently lived for a while in poverty. It’s a surreal conversation with his shadow; he asks where it goes when the sun goes down and it replies, “To the seedy parts of town and when I come back, I fill your head with crazy dreams.” 

The track begins with the sound of a match being lit and closes with it being blown out. There are similar effects through the album: blowing wind, fire, a creaky door, echoes, a train, running water, a police siren, dogs, a cat, birds. They may seem gimmicky but I appreciated them, like mile markers along the journey.

“River Jordan” is a folksy commentary on the Middle East (“I’ve never seen blood make a river run clear”) while “Grand Marais” is more local but no less biblical. (“St. Paul’s always felt lifetimes away, he would like it up here, there’s no savior to fear / It’s a rainy day here in Grand Marais where water falls faster than sinners lose their way.”) This is the third loveliest song on the album, with a chorus of Voyageurs and Dan Neale on mandolin.

The second loveliest is the next track, “Springtime in a Foreign City,” to no small degree due to Sands on both accordion and piano. “Hemingway” was written after he decorated a stringless guitar by stuffing a magazine photo of said author into the sound hole and “he stared out telling me to grab a pen.” 

The album closes out with the loveliest of all, the soft “Hard Roll.” The lyrics are a succinct recap of human history: “It’s been a hard roll, where do I begin. Some say back in the garden with original sin. They say salvation can’t be found in the flesh, but making love is nothing if it’s not being blessed. Somewhere along the way along the way, boys, we broke up into tribes. Tamed a few animal, planted crops and came to scribes. Armies, priests and kings, they all started making waves.”

It then becomes to a wry and wholly reasonable plea to the world’s leaders to at least limit their damage to daytime: “If we just leave the night for lovers, living in the dark wouldn’t feel all that bad.” The song goes on to discuss the future: “In the age of information, don’t forget your pen.”

So I am now a converted follower of the Son. I’m tempted to take this cd on a long drive just so I can have it on constant replay under a vast western sky. But maybe I’ll settle for the next time he makes the trek to the Twin Ports.

The SonofMel album is available on Bandcamp.