Rhode Island native Mark Cutler is out with an impressive new release Travel Light, a roots/rock album that sees him continuing a spiritual ride down the road to the core of rock and roll. In the 80's and early 90's, Cutler led The Schemers and The Raindogs, two bands that filled clubs in the northeast with a high energy blend of punk inspired classic rock and blues.
Released on the RI indie label 75 or Less Records, Travel Light displays Cutler’s astute songwriting and guitar chops, with a little help from his friends including fellow Schemers Jimmy Berger, Rick Couto and Richard Reed, as well as Throwing Muses drummer Dave Narcizo, violinist Cathy Clasper Torch, and Jonathan Gregg of NYC’s The Linemen. The result is an album filled with sweet melodies, layered guitar rock, and Petty-like vocals wrapped around a driving beat.
Cutler’s sound is instantly familiar, with vocals frequently compared to Tom Petty. His well-crafted lyrics also rival Petty – vivid, concise and straight to the heart. The album journeys along on a loose traveling theme, seemingly endless and dark, while never losing sight of the light.
There are numerous highlights – starting with the opener “Two Hours to Go,” a jingle-jangle guitar rocker reminiscent of the 80’s Schemers, when Cutler and Co. were making kick-ass rock and roll in a world of crappy synthesizers and bad haircuts. You’ll hear strains of the Rolling Stones, REM, and of course, a little Byrds sprinkled into the desperate story, a narrative of a man eagerly anticipating freedom:
“Two hours to go, my heart is racing/Anticipating what’s waiting outside. Two hours to go and I’m freeman/Breathing free air, swallowed by the sky.”
“Nothing From Nobody,” is a driving rocker behind the Cutler’s throaty guitar. Sounds of droning Beatles-era sitar resonate as Cutler chants “I don’t want nobody/If they don’t want me. I’d rather die in the desert/Rather drown in the sea.”
Cutler hits cruise control mid-album as he faces down life’s challenges. “Go With the Flow” rambles along with a balanced rhythm and a message down the middle where “happiness is just a guest.” Next, the confessional singer-songwriter sits down at the piano for the love song “What About You.” It’s a charmingly desperate poem and the most beautiful song on the album:
“I got nowhere to turn/On this hurricane night/Looking for shelter/There’s nothing in sight. Give me your hand/Take me to the light/I can’t do this all by myself”
Of course, what’s a road album without a visit or two from the devil? The blues-laden “The Other Shoe” is where this album reaches the crossroads. It’s a clinic in songwriting.
“Kick the devil out of this house/He don’t sleep here anymore/Tell him to take all of his pictures/And his sleeping bag off the floor.
Let him know that he don’t rent/No space inside your brain/Tell him you took all of his junk/And you washed it down the drain.”
The devil remains close on “Killed a Man,” a murder confession that slides along over a nice beat. “Pretty baby I love you so/There’s something that you ought to know/I killed a man last night.” The theme continues on the lyrically rich “East of Eden,” another highlight. “You can’t trust anybody with a smile upon their face/A little of east of Eden, a little far from grace.”
Metaphors to modernity abound on “Misfits,” ostensibly a tale of the traveling circus. The tune shuffles along on a countrified beat. The songwriting is direct and honest ... “The circus life has got you down/There’s a lot of that stuff going around/Tired of putting your makeup on/And your big old shoes on the sawdust ground.”
“Travel Light” is the confessional farewell, an acknowledgement of human frailty. It feels a little like a lost track from the Stones Sticky Fingers, with a slow groove building toward the final destination of this road story – “if you want to get there, you better travel light.”
National fame was brief and elusive for this Rhode Island artist who has always brought the whole package to his craft. He’s never “toiled in obscurity,” but he’s also never gotten the kind of recognition he deserves. Of course, it’s never too late. Check out Travel Light on Spotify here and let me know what you think. The album is available for pre-order here.
Note: A version of this review first appeared in WhatsUpNewp, a leading news and lifestyle site based in Newport, RI.