CD Review: Mando Saenz - Studebaker (Carnival, 2013)
Americana singer-songwriter suggests Dylan emerging from his acoustic cocoon
Mando Saenz's first release in five years shows a new level of self-confidence. The album's title song (called "Pocket Change," but prominently featuring "Studebaker" in the lyrical hook) opens with a brooding verse that suggests contemplation, but it's really only an emotional spring being wound. The song releases its self-realization on the beats "I... don't... want... to... love... you... any... more" with the guitar, bass and drums quickly entering the fight. Saenz sounds like Dylan emerging from his acoustic cocoon, with a driving guitar solo that's more indebted to early rock 'n' roll than folk or country. He sings in a plaintive, edgy moan that exhales bad times without the force needed to completely chase them away. Instead, he takes flight, sometimes leaving, sometimes being left, and all the time letting his rear-view mirror elide the past. There's locomotion in the shuffle "Battle Scar" and stoic resolve in "The Road I'm On" and "Colorado," and a Springsteen-styled catalog of wishes brings focus to "Hard Time Tennessee." Saenz retains a musical connection to his fellow Houstonian Hayes Carll, but his music has the kick of rootsy rock bands like the Gin Blossoms. Guests on this outing include Kim Richey (who co-wrote and sang on "Breakaway Speed"), Kenny Vaughan, Jedd Hughes, Pete Finnie and Bobby Bare Jr., and they help give the album a naturalness that belies its Nashville creation; whatever baggage Saenz has carried from his Mexico birthplace through his Houston upbringing to his Nashville residence is clearly filled with songwriting gold.