By Kate Baggott
Before the pretty whining of Coldplay and Maroon 5, there was the blues. Before there was feeling sorry for yourself, there was being miserable and enjoying it. Before there was equal opportunity, there was bluegrass.
The border city blues and misery are the territories covered by Paris, Ontario based John Mars on his new album. The 16 tracks that make up Detroit or Buffalo are songs of heartbreak, acceptance, and tolerance. It’s a style that, like the cities of the title, isn’t close enough to the action or far enough from irreversible decline.
The mood of Detroit or Buffalo is that of awaiting the end of civilization, juxtaposing the debauchery of enjoying life while we can with the tragedy of having squandered our best days. It’s a mix that ties the material together. Two original compositions stand out: the vulnerable and unforgettable “A Swallow in Winter,” a heartbreaking ode to lost love, and the comical “I’m Feelin’ a Little Bit Under the Table,” about downing a 24 at the Horseshoe with beer goggles firmly in place.
Accompanied by acoustic guitar, piano, and electric organ, Mars’ voice carries the torch of sounds past. This is modern musicology for people who know where they’ve come from and aren’t sentimental about it. Mars clearly knows what would happen if Nick Cave, Johnny Ramone, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash played as a quartet for a swing dance at a boozecan.
With those influences and decades of performance experience, boy-band fame and rock-star reality shows are out of Mars’ league. He’s certainly earned greater notoriety over his 25-year career, but he’s never pursued it. Instead, he’s settled nicely into the music, with a swig of bourbon and a case of beer for after the show. That’s a pretty good place to enjoy being miserable.