Killing The Old Ways

Pete Mancini

Paradiddle Records, 2022

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


On Twitter a ways back Pete Mancini playfully referenced the genre he’s working in as “Americana power pop.” The thing is, it’s as accurate a label as any. The Long Island singer-songwriter’s work features the serious tone and country-rock leanings of a lot of Americana, married to the tight song construction, rich harmonies and hooky muscle of power pop. So, yeah: I say go with it.

This, Mancini’s third solo album following a two-album/two-EP run fronting the quartet Butcher’s Blind, finds him enlisting a pair of well-matched partners in crime in co-producers Matt Patton (bass / Drive-By Truckers) and Bronson Tew (drums / mixing), the team behind the studio Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi. While Mancini the songwriter leans more to Bob Dylan than Patterson Hood, there’s a sense of purpose and a willingness to go big with both the messages and the riffs that feels very much in sync with DBT, and Patton ends up with co-writing credits on half of these 10 tracks.

Mancini open things up with the haunted and haunting “Standing In The Shadows,” a full-bodied, bluesy mid-tempo number with more than a little of The Band in its bones. “It’s a long way back from the bottom / When you feel like you’ve been forgotten” he sings as a background vocal chorus rises up to meet him, a luminous effect that concludes the track on a high note.

Melancholy transitions to coiled anger as Mancini launches into “Old Television,” a pointed, hooky number about trying to fight off the ghosts of history as the world repeats old mistakes (“The past is a movie that I don’t want to see”). While the rich jangle of the guitars is pure Americana, a piercing synth accent and chorused vocals add power-pop edge to this sharply drawn single.

The urgent, haunted “Patchwork” features ghostly, soaring steel guitar from Jamison Hollister and a nice dropout on the vocals where Mancini leaves the last word of “better off dead” unspoken, creating a sort of dialogue by allowing the listener to fill it in. It’s an effective device for a spooky tune whose worn-down narrator will “Keep trudging down the righteous path ’til the day I grow old.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Batting cleanup, “High Rise Serenade” leans into the country side of things, a downbeat number about missed connections featuring more atmospheric steel work from Hollister. “You wish that you could call her, but you can’t pick up the phone,” he sings, “Counting all the ways that you might spend your days alone.” The title track paints in darker colors yet, a thumping backbeat supporting a menacing tone that’s counterpointed with terrific female harmony vocals from Schaefer Llana. Co-written by Mancini, Patton, and Mancini’s late friend Travis McKeveny, and propelled by sharply strummed acoustics and prominent, haunting fiddle, “Killing The Old Ways” embodies the tone if not the scale of a Drive-By Truckers number.

Framing these 10 tracks old-school style as side one and side two, Mancini opens the latter with “Don’t Ask (If You Don’t Want To Know),” another tune that feels like it fell out the back window of The Band’s tour bus. It’s a steady-on, unhurried number with the DBTs’ Jay Gonzalez featured on warm, resonant Hammond organ, and a lush vocal arrangement echoing Mancini’s plea to “Have some faith and don’t give up.” Second single “Madison Avenue Blues” is another highlight, abundant jangle framing a great first verse: “Gold watches and designer clothes / A syndicated TV show / Silver spoon and drinkin’ hand / A rented room in the promised land.” While it carries NYC-centric hints of both Fountains Of Wayne and early Springsteen, this longtime fan of everyone mentioned in this paragraph can’t help drawing a dotted line back to fellow power-popper and Bay Area local boy Greg Kihn’s “Madison Avenue.” Here the interplay between guitars, warm organ, strategically placed handclaps, supple background vocals, and a rather elegiac synth melody give Mancini’s tune rich texture and dimension.

The darkness dominates again with “Horse And Sparrow,” a distinctly Neil Young-esque political screed set to big, distorted Crazy Horse guitars. With nods to pandemic lockdowns and rampant injustice, it’s a timely blast of socio-political angst. Next up, the cascading acoustic guitars, steel and fiddle of “Why The Building Falls” carry us back in a country-rock direction, even as Mancini urges listeners to “Find your truth and live for today / Before it gets away.”

The album closes strong with the bluesy road song “Flyover States,” a close-to-the-heart number that Mancini sings the hell out of, a brooding dialogue with the powers that be about alienation, middle America, and the life of a traveling artist. “And I wonder are you staying out late / As I drive through these flyover states / To a different stage in a different town / Free will and the corner of fate.” The track’s sharp yet subtle arrangement brings home the mood beautifully, with Hammond and crunchy guitar leading the way, again carrying echoes of Big Pink in its easygoing majesty.

For all the comparatives tossed around above, though, the one that might hit closest to the mark is John Hiatt. Pete Mancini is first and foremost a songwriter, a craftsman with an instinctual feel for structure, tone, and arrangements who constructs one evocative vignette after another. Teaming up with the talented Patton and Tew helped to ensure the end result: Killing The Old Ways is Mancini’s strongest outing yet, a rangy, penetrating, consistently tuneful examination of the current American moment that leaves no doubt you are in the hands of a gifted artist.

Rating: A-

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