I first met Sarah Munro and Mark LeGrand in the mid-90’s. Mark had said he wrote songs and suggested that we play a few tunes together. I didn’t think much of it until I heard him sing l Know What Makes the Rain, one of his originals. I love songs like this: elusive yet tantalizingly close to the source. About five minutes later I suggested we make an album at my home studio and that is how Mischievous Angel came into being in 1997. It featured their compelling harmonies, his songwriting along with a few they wrote together, and it remains a longstanding favorite among their fans. Since then LeGrand has made three albums on his own even as they’ve continued to perform on and off together. Now, 19 years later we have Tigers Above and Tigers Below, their first collaborative album since Mischeivous Angel.
It begins with “Ask of Me”– a soul tinged ballad complete with a Hammond B-3 organ to set the sultry mood. LeGrand wrote all the songs on Tigers except two they penned together and this is one of the two. It serves as a testament to their enduring relationship while capturing a glimpse of the infinite:
Ask of me, When the stars are rearranging
Ask of me, When there's new worlds to explore
Ask of me, As everything is changing
Ask of me…
Ask of me, When you purify the waters
Ask of me, When you sanctify the wine
Ask of me, We are all your son's and daughters
Ask of me, ask of me, ask of me
This is not a song to merely announce to the world that “now everything is fine, we’re together” but the distilled wisdom that ensues from profound life changes and spiritual self-examination.
“The Hank In Me”, reveals the spirit and honky-tonk soul of Hank Williams with a lyrical approach reminiscent of how Dylan borrows traditional motifs and phrases in songs like Blind Willie McTell or Red River Shore. In this case it’s Williams’ lyrics that are brilliantly inserted:
I saw Maybelline coming over the hill, In a cherry red rag top Coup Deville
She set the woods on fire and I saw the light
She picked me up on her way down
I brought the pain, she bought the rounds
At closing time I was feeling all right
It's the Hank in me, I do the be bop be
I called the doctor on the phone
He said I'm sorry son but it's in your bones
At this point we realize the album is driven by solid, fluid arrangements with a tight band consisting of drummer Bret Hoffman and keyboardist extraordinaire Ira Friedman. Both are members of Dave Keller’s blues band. The lead guitarist is Jason Jack Merrihew who finds a way to shine in every lead or backing role he’s presented with while LeGrand steadys the bottom end with electric bass.
The title track is inspired from a Zen parable that is deftly woven into the lyrics. The sketch of the story is: your running from a tiger, you fly over a ledge with only a vine to hold you, a mouse is gently nibbling on the vine and a strawberry appears, seemingly out of nowhere, you pick it - while seemingly hanging on for your life. It’s a lesson in being in the now:
The ever present moment is always here to show,
Tigers Above and Tigers Below.
"After All These Years" is a LeGrand / Merrihew original that sounds like a Willie Nelson classic - smooth a silk. It's song filled with reminecence and commitment.
This album has a texture to it, an overall sheen thanks to Central Vermont’s studio wizard and producer Colin McCaffery (The Green Room.) Hoffman’s drums never sounded better and he plays instinctually to every phrase, a producers dream. Ira Friedman’s Hammond B-3 adds a haunting effect throughout this album while his piano magnifies his contribution. Tom Buckely's (Jeff Salisbury Band) electric bass is always where it needs to be with strength and style while Scott Conreille's upright adds its subtleties when needed. Even if some of the songs go by in the context of listening, you are always able to just feel what’s going on, and eventually a song will come out and hit you a bit harder here, or allow you to breathe easier for a moment there.
“Lost Ball in the Weeds” is a chilling, disarming song about the mystery of life, how we connect, interact, lose and ultimately find our way. If that’s a mouthful and a high bar to achieve, I can only say that assessment only touches on part of it, no small feat here. It’s like a Dylan song that you hear for the first time – like Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts where you know yer gonna enjoy absorbing the nuances of the lyric for a long time to come. You get it, but it’s elusive at the same time; with Dylan some called it poetry. LeGrand took a seemingly innocent conversation with an older man who was recalling his father's suicide at age seven, then his mother leaving shortly thereafter and him feeling like a ‘lost ball in the weeds.’
Summer breeze, through the trees
Sun drops from the sky
Suppers on, Mama's gone
Guess she just had to fly
Memories on a night like this
Travel along at light speed
Who's gonna find me, Who's gonna see
Another lost ball in the weeds
Ultimately, it’s the compassion and understanding that we are left with:
Feel the tide, pull my insides
rip me with it's undertow
Where I am, from where I began
Wonder if I'll ever know?
Their harmonies on this one are the comfort one needs when the heart is ripped open. Scott Cornielle’s upright bass adds the gentle power it deserves. When I recorded my violin part, it felt like a religious experience being in the middle of this song.
“Just One Taste” could be covered by Tony Bennett. Yes, LeGrand's writing has matured that much. The truth is, he has been a student of the trade for years and one cannot help to realize that after while, he just got really good at writing songs. In a jazzy, nylon-stringed guitar accompaniment, it glides along with Merrihew’s guitars framing the tenderness of pure love.
For the many who love LeGrand's honky-tonk roots, the next sequence of songs offers plenty. Starting with “It’s Good To See You Gone” the title hook speaks for itself and plays true to form with McCaffery’s classic fiddle throwing it headlong into Nashville mode.
It’s Good To See You Gone,
Everything about our love was wrong
"Tell Me Something (I Don’t Know)" features a classic country-like duet with both LeGrand and Munro trading verses then joining together like the many country partners who have come down this road before, George Jones/ Tammy Wynette – and the like. LeGrand has always possessed a deep baritone to die for yet it’s Sarah’s voice that has made giant leaps in expression and richness of texture.
“Double Wide” features those rat-a-tat lyrics and a hard luck ‘everything ‘s gone wrong’ scenario until the final verse brings it all home:
Grandpa’s in his easy chair, nothin’s ever easy there
Grandma’s out behind the church, Covered up with a load of dirt
We’ll all end up there one day, Some will curse some will pray
Me I’ll try to make it rhyme right up ‘till I’m out of time
"Outside Our Own Backyard" was written together in their hotel room while they were on vacation on Cape Cod. Another soul-filled ballad, it immediately draws you in and leaves us with an appreciation for life, like some movie that has ripped open your soul yet given it back with a final assessment at the end.
Oh how we want to go, like rivers want to flow
they have more time, you know, this we can’t disregard
Oh how we long to go, let go and lose control
follow our dreams and grow, Outside our Own Backyard
Let’s spread our wings and fly
We’ll cross the mountain high
Follow an endless sky
Outside our Own Backyard
We know that partnership means having an ability to withstand and flourish throughout the many changes that life brings. In Tigers Above and Tigers Below Munro and LeGrand articulate the wisdom that comes from a love that sustains – and that is a gift to this world.