There are many ways to interpret and preserve the traditions of musical Americana. One is treat it like a museum piece, with pious reverence — thereby sucking the fun clean out of it. Another is to revamp it, keep its mannerisms but supercharge it, mucking it up with irony and audacity until it's hard to tell where love for the music leaves off and contempt takes over. Local lad Mark Growden has found his own path — he approaches American music in untraditional ways, keeping the framework and verities, but, in his words, "turning them on their head, [interpreting them] the way a jazz musician would. It's not jazz, but it's taking old songs and finding their emotion, remaking them anew." Growden embraces American music as a whole, finding Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin part of the same continuum as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
Growden has taken a circuitous path to get to where he is now. His background is in jazz and classical music; his main ax, the saxophone. Growden had established himself in the Bay Area's cutting-edge jazz scene, exploring the areas where composition and improvisation blur, with Bay Area ensembles the Splatter Trio and the Club Foot Orchestra. "I had been composing and performing music for local dance companies, and one night, all my instruments were stolen [from one of the performance spaces]. I had to start from scratch. Someone lent me a banjo, and that completed a connection for me. I always liked and studied folk music, listened to the Alan Lomax field recordings of Appalachian music. The banjo was an auxiliary [way] to get to playing again, but it tapped into my love for that."
Lose Me in the Sand was made live in the studio, recorded in two days in Tucson, Ariz. "Everything [about the album] is a snapshot," Growden says. The desiccated desert ambiance of that state and region is part of the album. He recorded with his "Tucson band," whose regional sensibilities infuse the proceedings. Growden's voice has an almost eerie echo throughout, sounding as if it were coming from an abandoned home. "That's probably because my voice is coming through everyone's microphones," he says. "I did the vocals live along with the band."
The album often has a ghostlike cast, but do not call it "lo-fi." "When [performers] try too hard to sound lo-fi and 'primitive,' that's just as bad as Nashville high-gloss studio stuff," says Growden, referring to how mainstream rock and country discs' studio productions have taken heart and spontaneity out of music, and how indie recordings confuse rawness with authenticity. Growden celebrates American sounds, but he's no snob about it, seeking to unearth and embrace the obscure or archaic. Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" is recast as apocalyptic mountain ballad, its declaration of devotion sounding harrowing rather than happy. Growden's own ominous "Takin' My Time" evokes the work songs of field laborers and prison chain gangs, conjuring the driven grunts, chants, boot-stomps, and hammers of endlessly, thanklessly toiling men, with a serrated harmonica wail that cuts through flesh and bone into the soul. While some use sampling to juxtapose elements in a postmodern hoo-hah, Growden employs what he terms "acoustic mash-up" — the album's final track is an exhilarating collision of tunes unique to the U.S. of A. The words to the Janis Joplin hit "Mercedes Benz" — "Oh, Lord, won't you buy me ... a night on the ... a color TV" — are sung, ingeniously, to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Of this, Growden states, "It's a protest of materialism in our culture." As an elegant, hopeful epilogue, there is a courtly version of "Molly Rose Waltz."
Growden has three bands of and for different cities and distinct musical ambitions. His Oakland/San Francisco combo features protean guitarist Myles Boisen ("I've been playing with him off and on since 1995"), trumpeter Chris Grady, percussionist Jenya Chernoff, cellist Alex Kelly, and himself on an assortment of noisemakers ("accordion, bicycle handlebars, shruti box"). The band concentrates on "art songs, not the usual verse/chorus/verse framework." His next disc will feature his New Orleans group. "This band is amazing — [it includes] Wendell Brunious, a trumpeter for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and saxophonist Loren Pickford, who used to play for Jackie Wilson and Van Morrison. [The next album] will be songs, but done in the hard bop, soul-jazz style of Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver," Growden says. "Those guys reached back into the roots of jazz, into gospel, blues, field hollers." That's somewhat similar to the way, on Lose Me, Growden delves into the history of American song, going full circle, connecting the events and emotions of what was to what is and likely will be.