Foothill Freeway

Pete Mancini

Paradiddle Records, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


To me, music has always felt like it’s part science and part magic. Yes, there’s considerable skill and craft involved, but there are also those difficult-to-define elements that elevate music from what it is closer to what it could be. One of those elements seems simple, but is so rare: when a singer-songwriter’s Voice (the narrative and tonal approach he tends to take in his songwriting) is a perfect match for his voice (the sound that comes out of his mouth when he sings).

Foothill Freeway, the debut solo album from Butcher’s Blind frontman Pete Mancini, offers another showcase for his terrific songwriting chops, to be sure, but the inclusion of three covers only underscores my central takeaway: Mancini’s plaintive Everyman voice is an absolutely perfect fit for the kind of music he makes—indie-inflected Americana that’s deceptively simple and devastatingly honest.

Interestingly, Foothill Freeway features among its large cast of players the rest of Butcher’s Blind (Brian Reilly on bass, Paul Anthony on drums and harmony vocals, and Christopher Smith on piano), and opens with a cover tune. Not just any cover, though; as its title immediately suggests to anyone familiar with the history of the country-rock, “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” is a virtual mission statement for this album, recounting the moment the genre was invented by a group of folk-rocking hippies gone to Nashville: “McGuinn, Hillman and Parsons / Never looking back / They changed the world / How could they know?” Composer Russ Seeger helps out on fiddle here and elsewhere.

Themes thus established—this album leans considerably more to the country-folk side of Mancini’s Americana than the blues-rock side heard more prominently in Butcher’s Blind—Mancini unveils a gem of a tune in “You’re Gonna Change,” heavy on both banjo and fiddle as our narrator draws a line in the sand for his increasingly distant lover: “I’m sick to death of all the secrets / The thoughts behind your eyes / It stops today, you’re gonna change / Or I’ll be gone before tonight.” Mancini’s craftsmanship really shines in the last minute when he arranges a nifty “duet with self,” singing both lead and harmony down to the close.

Mancini presents Wes Houston’s “High Wind Slick Roads” as a true duet, with sweet harmony vocals by Cassandra House and a nice turn from Skip Krevens on pedal steel. Gentle as it is, it sets the scene nicely for the more anthemic “The Hardest Way To Part,” a catchy number that offers this bit of hard-earned wisdom: “And you hope that she still loves you / But she made it hard to tell / When you learn how to love / You forget to love yourself.”

The title track arrives as an unadorned, novelistic song tracing the story of a working man from a broken home, trying to recapture lost innocence while driving the roads of his youth. It’s nostalgic and evocative at first, growing darker and more intense until a haunting final verse that highlights the thread tracing back from this one to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

“To Be Alive” features House again on harmony vocals, an upbeat number with a bittersweet undercurrent (“The more we laugh / The more we feel alone”). The arrangement counterpoints the lyric nicely, as Mancini offsets the philosophical bent of his words with playful banjo and handclaps. “Knowlton County Township” offers a countrified reimagining of Springsteen’s “Darlington County,” albeit one that feels more Faulkner than Bruce. Both feel present in “Rented Room,” a spare, somber piano ballad, with Jonathan Preddice’s cello providing color as Mancini sings of a trucker viewing “Burnt out mills and factory plains / Families living out in the street” before concluding that “We can’t keep pretending we’re someone we’re not.”

Mancini finishes strong, first tackling Iain Matthews’ loose yet thoughtful “Cartwheel Avenue” with an assist from Matthews himself, before closing with the wistful “Something Missing.” The latter features acoustic and mandolin much of the way before delivering a warm, limber electric solo with a firm nod in the direction of George Harrison.

Mancini’s solo debut delivers richly imagined songs that both honor and extend the Americana and singer-songwriter traditions, beautifully matching Voice with voice. With a deep sense of purpose and tremendous craft, Mancini catalogues the foibles and failings of men and women, lovers and nations, a tapestry of all-too-human humanity.

Rating: A-

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© 2017 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Paradiddle Records, and is used for informational purposes only.