Those keeping score will mark this as Charlie Mars’ fifth album, but upon first listen, Like A Bird, Like A Plane can best be described as a new debut.
Over 11 songs, Mars hits a groove that does not signify any specific genre but instead is hardwired to hearts and hips. This is an album that writhes through the headphones, which will ultimately be tossed in favor of a living room dance floor. Mars has sewn together tightly crafted songs with moods and melodies that pulse with sex, wonderment, and personal destruction – all themes that may clash on paper but in music suggest mysteries that are organic to us all.
Before Charlie heard the sound he wanted on Like A Bird, Like A Plane, he saw it and felt it. It moved along the insistent curves of a burlesque dancer he’d met at Los Angeles’ 40 Deuce Club, it snaked through the bend of late night crowds in the music halls of New Orleans and it hung in the air of the blues filled juke joints of his native Mississippi. “I started to feel less inspired by traditional rock and pulled towards the snaky, sinewy, sensuality of groove,” says Mars.
Under no direction but his own, Mars bee-lined to Austin, Texas, where he solicited players who understood how to form all four corners instead of facing straight ahead: Drummer J.J. Johnson (John Mayer), keyboardist John Ginty (Citizen Cope), bass players George Reiff (Jakob Dylan) and Dave Monzie (Fiona Apple) and producer and guitarist Billy Harvey. Parts evolved from happy accidents or group decisions; in many cases, the sweet spot was hit at first take.
The musicians played to the fragile introspection of the lyrics, but not for reverence: the Lanois meets Graceland rhythms underneath are more in league with electronic dance or hip-hop.
That Mars toured with childhood heroes R.E.M. or built up a following loyal to his instinctual left turns is an unlikely story. Born in El Dorado, Ark and raised in Laurel, MS, Mars was raised in a Methodist home, the eldest of three brothers. Church music whet his palette, which materialized into a bedroom obsession with radio hits – all the 1970’s singer-songwriters received regular rotation – which later gave way to the holy trinity of underground rock: The Smiths, R.E.M. and the Pixies. The years of indulgence made its mark: Mars took up guitar in high school and never looked back.
At Southern Methodist University he turned entrepreneur. After borrowing money and selling a car, he recorded Broken Arrow (1996), his debut album, which eventually sold about 40,000 copies. He became the classic grassroots artist, establishing his name one stage at a time. Mars toured the Southeast college scene, playing an average of 150 dates a year. With two more albums under his belt – Born and Razed (1997) and End of Romance (1999) – Mars could have kept the momentum ablaze.
Instead it burned out. Alcohol and pills crippled his endurance; his next stop was rehab. Upon departure, Mars left the country for Sweden where he sought solace in anonymity: performing for lunch crowds beside the ocean, sleeping in a houseboat that doubled as a restaurant. He wrote the songs that would become his major label debut which, upon his return to the U.S., seemed like destiny: A one-night casino win netted him enough money to buy studio time – and after its completion, he was summoned to New York City where V2 Records (White Stripes, Moby) signed him to their roster. The immediacy of it all came as a big surprise.
“I had no manager, no band, I hadn’t toured for about two years – I thought my career was done,” he says now.
But it was just the beginning. Charlie Mars (2004) gave him what he always hoped for: a wider audience, critical accolades, nation radio play, major touring slots in the U.S. and Europe, videos, red carpet friends. Rolling Stone called it “big emotional rock from Mississippi” with “a knack for hooks, and the hooks here have real barbs: They tug at you and just might draw some blood.”
In that three-year period between 2003-2006, Mars experienced the highs of the music business and lows felt when the business starts to overshadow the music.
“I felt a sense of panic that, ‘oh my god, if all this slips away, I’m finished.’ I was constantly trying to make everybody stay in love with me,” he says. “It got to the point I was exhausted.”
With V2 folded, its roster cut, Mars retraced his steps until they led once again to solid ground: I had a vision for what I wanted and I went to Austin to see if I could make it happen.
Like A Bird, Like A Plane is rooted in conflict; one that began for Mars in childhood, having grown up in the church.
“I think the message of Christianity is beautiful – love and compassion and tolerance. I feel close to that. But when people co-opt that and use it to have power over others through shame and fear, it becomes a problem. I felt guilt about things which were really just a natural part of being a precocious, confused kid who was sensitive and aware,” he says. “It created an internal conflict which I still deal with all the time. It wasn’t until I got a sense of humor about some of it that I started to feel better and come into my own.”
Facing those conflicts evolved into the themes of Like A Bird, Like A Plane. Mars pushed the musicians to find unusual hooks and invent ways to get into the songs that were less direct, which inevitably layered music with imperfections that sound human and vulnerable.
Songs hit boiling points at unexpected moments; their melodies remain subtle but always present. Because they are so rhythmically textured, while at eh same time spacious, songs reveal new things upon each listen. Mars sets everything to a groove, so listening can mean disappearing inside the music and following the ride.
“If I have a vision for this record, it would be for me and my band and the music to be at the center of an experience that people have dancing around a giant bonfire. And every night, you can go and get on that wavelength where it can all just melt into something beautiful for a while. That sounds pretty damn cool to me,” says Mars.
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