Album Review

NJ Singer-Songwriter's 4th Release Goes Adult-Contemporary & Finds a Comfortable Niche

A.P. Mauro - Bent But Not broken

Sitting on steps / Courtesy of website

I’ve been familiar with A.P. Mauro’s music for a few years now – a New Jersey artist who has been persistent and most definitely with every release offering a stronger set. His latest 9-track album Bent But Not Broken, is his fourth release, and it has some sharp acoustic guitar picking (Rob Compa) on “Home (Solitary Sanctuary).” This track offers some solid rhythm, a pleasant melody and while Mauro could use a little more enthusiasm in his vocals -- however, he does sing with renewed vigor. A sure sign of confidence or finally finding a comfortable niche.

Unfortunately, Mauro seems to have abandoned the Americana genre and is dabbling in a more adult-contemporary genre now. Not entirely bad, but AP was doing fine with his Americana music and maybe he will return to it – even if it’s just for a few songs. Nevertheless, whatever he has done here in this new album certainly suits him.

Mauro is not an exciting singer in the tradition of say Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle -- but he is a sincere and resourceful singer-songwriter. His style now is firmly set in an approach similar to, but not exclusively that of, the late David Blue (S. David Cohen later). David was laid back, a friend of Bob Dylan's, Judy Collins and Eric Andersen. His songs were stories and sometimes they were a bit flatlined in expression. This was not Andrea Bocelli or even Jack Jones. Fortunately, AP is not that mundane and melancholy, he has bright and cheery melodies. AP is also a little in that Jim Lampos arena vocally and since Lampos is on his 8th album there is an audience for this kind of songwriting and this kind of singer. 

“April Rains,” has some descriptive lyrics. Mauro’s songwriting is getting sanded smooth with each release as well. The retro backup singers add some nice soulful moments. The musicians themselves are striking and this tune does have a nice meticulous melody. Very well-arranged and could attract Mauro’s songwriting to other artists who may not write their own material. This song, while not challenging or intense, has its merits in a wonderful little lyrical tale. Nice performance.

“Walking Through a Cloud,” adds little effects but maintains a steady country-ballad feel. AP and the female vocal (Deb Lyons) work well. The added rap style doesn’t distract from the more somber country lap steel but it’s an inventive approach that I can appreciate. But I wouldn't do too often. This is actually quite brave and AP does a fine job. Mauro’s vocals are not strong, or powerful -- but he manages to get a sincerity from his style of singing that even better singers don't achieve. Having a great voice doesn't always translate to emotive or believable. AP is relaxed, a more confident sound in his material is noticeable. This song could have failed but it breathes, it has air and floats along in a respective progression.

Opening with a rockier guitar AP is a little more preachy on “One Star in the Sky,” but he tries to be more contemporary. he holds on to his meaningful lyric without being too novelty-oriented. I believe he sometimes teeters on that wire but he does balance it and does succeed. The song is in that Roger Miller-Buddy Miller-Steve Earle genre with wonderful drums (Tom Cottone) just under the soaring guitar. Mauro offers also a fine vocal again and does reach a bit. He's entitled to that. But his improvements in this area are credible.

Once again Mauro seems to be his most comfortable with the acoustic guitar songs – Rob Compa offers solid accompaniment on “Stale Cigarettes.” Here AP offers his best Tom Rush-Tom Paxton shuffle story and it’s all light hearted with tongue in cheek. This is where AP veers away from the country sources and explores folk more deeply. Wise too. He begins to show some serious diversification which he needs. If he had added a little more controversy or darkness to the lyric of this song he would then be in Woody Guthrie / Billy Bragg / Dave Van Ronk / Wilco land.

What sounds like a dip of the toe into a more spiritual musical area AP challenges his listeners with “Rest on Me.” Oh, no -- spiritual?

Ah, but his voice seems suitable for this type of song (probably more than anyone ever realized). The melody is strong and the tiny piano tinkle’s have emotive sweeps. This may not be a hit on country radio but AP has written quite a memorable, strong and meaningful spiritual song and this is by far his finest vocal. Not an easy chore. Karlee Bloom plays the piano and Tom Cottone’s drums are also steady as a rock. This is borderline “Amazing Grace.” While that song is classic – it’s easy to see where a singer-songwriter can be influenced by it’s beauty and write something equally optimistic. This could be sung by a school choir, a Gospel choir, or in a church of any congregation. It’s uplifting, it gives one hope. If it gets any traction it will become somewhat of a standard. It’s AP’s little 2018 masterpiece. I’m not easily swayed by these types of songs but this one has just the right ingredients to put it on repeat. Has it ever happened? Well, with two incredibly strong songs -- "Oh, Happy Day," by the Edwin Hawkins Singers and Melanie Safka's "Lay Down -- Candles In the Rain," (featuring the Edwin Hawkins Singers) or the remarkable "Table In the Wilderness," by the Soul Mission (on YouTube). 

This could happen to AP's song as well -- if he goes back and remixes it with a choir. The song would go from a candle flame to a torch in the wilderness. AP doesn’t hit the target with this one – he goes through the target.

Returning brilliantly to a rockier song – and pacing his album quite well, is AP's “Breakaway,” as Cottone’s drums drive this song like a battering ram and the piano (could have been mixed a little higher) quite colorful. Just a touch of special vocal effects and AP balances this tune with just enough rock, just enough spiritual infusion, and Rob Compa adds a sprinkle a nice guitar solo over everything briefly. The bass holds it all down (Rob Tanico) tight and the tune never gets away from the musicians. This one is expressive, a show stopper at the end of a concert with plenty of room for imaginative soloing. Mauro has offered already more optimistic songs on an album than most artists usually do. This song was excellently recorded and AP continues to dig deep. I can hear the improvement and it has a hint of resonance.

Dropping back into a more serious ballad tone AP maintains his strong lyric writing with “Lighter Shades of Blue,” -- another melodic and well-arranged song that features spotlights on many of the musicians. This is the most commercially viable tune. It forces you to want to sing along. Rob Compa’s lead guitar is breezy like Danny O’Keeffe, Jesse Winchester, and Gram Parsons. There's just enough country, just enough rock to make the song appeal to a wider audience.

The final track -- another challenging attempt with its fuzzy deep note lead guitar. “Human Noise,” if it had a little more grit would have been a real change for AP. But I can hear him push back against the wall of his creativity. Here AP momentarily steps into that world where early Bruce Springsteen shoved so many big words and syllables into a lyric line as possible. AP uses unconventional lyrics now liberally but I admire it. At least his songs are beginning to sound more original and the lack of clichés makes most of it interesting. This song is actually quite good. AP – who still needs to develop a vocal presence – does have a pleasant enough voice and showcase to spark interest. He does display certain influences at times, consciously and unconsciously, but AP does have an orbit with his own gravity.

With each outing, he grows a little further and he widens his scope of subjects. He does tell better stories now. 

Mauro still has to top his previous masterpiece though -- “Imagine That,” which was an excellent song on a previous release. But at least AP hasn’t faltered anywhere here except for that brighter, vocal presence which is not difficult to do. Let's face it Neil Young is liked by many rock fans but he has a whiny voice like many of today's modern rock singers. Fortunately, AP Mauro doesn't whine. he doesn't have an Elvis Presley voice, or Frank Sinatra voice, or craggy Bob Dylan voice -- but he does maintain a semblance of quality throughout. For some, it may take more than one listen. Why? Because AP isn’t composing songs that are in today’s country ready style. He's not trying to follow a menu. He isn’t twangy, he isn’t wearing a hat, there are no pick-up truck songs, or rusty barns and old horses, or a cigarette crushed out in his whiskey shot glass. He tries his best to bring the country motherlode out of an entirely different hillside.

At times, the mine is deep with an older style of country. A little Roger Miller (who was a very clever lyricist and his “River in the Rain,” was a masterpiece). AP is still finding his way but at least he's found the path. 

AP’s not quite Outlaw music, yet. Maybe on the next collection, he can get a little more rustic, gritty and twist some noses. (That usually gets the attention of music magazines and blogs).

But for now, AP has credible ballads, a good band and the stories are told with more density than typical commercial performers. So long as AP stays away from clichés and subjects that everyone in folk and country play with he stands a chance to at least carve out a niche of his own. Not everyone can write like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Leonard Cohen. But AP Mauro does have that patience to collect essentially what pleases an ear that doesn't have to rush to a dictionary. Mauro has married his words to the right notes and has produced a simple but striking collection that should win more ears. Running out of time should not his concern. Doing something that you can put your pride into is everything. 

He also has a band of young artists (20-somethings) that must enjoy accompanying him because they all sound marvelous. The 33-minute collection: Produced by Steve Jankowski (musical director for Blood, Sweat & Tears; Nile Rogers) and AP Mauro. All the songs were written by AP Mauro. The CD I received was a preliminary copy – a single cardboard cover of an illustration of a tree bending in the wind in full color with no insert.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.

John Apice / No Depression / June 2018