Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mark Ray Lewis- Trilobite

Mark Ray Lewis describes Albuquerque as "The opposite end of the old Santa Fe Trail" from where he was raised in Hannibal,Mo. His father was a Southern Baptist preacher, which led to Baptist church camps in Glorieta, Lewis' first introduction to the Land of Enchantment. Mark's father had a natural ear for music and his mother was a talented vocalist, Mark however chose to pursue writing. As a young man, while living and working in New Mexico and writing in his spare time, he was offered a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. This is a two-year creative writing fellowship that honors the American novelist known as "The Dean of Western Writers". His writing also made him the recipient of  the Pushcart Prize, a literary prize that honors "poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot."  Upon his return to New Mexico in 2003, Lewis assembled Trilobite, his vehicle for musical expression. Mark Ray Lewis builds music of immense depth with the most basic of ingredients: mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo, drums, low brass, theremin and pedal steel. It's new folk infused with Midwestern sensibilities, energetically quirky, yet Gothic and dark. He has a keen eye for human frailty, deviations from the norm and a photographic memory for details. Mark also seems at odds with religion, as he comes to terms, not with a loss of faith but with a restructuring of his beliefs. He is, as an interviewer remarked "Christ-haunted"  a remark that Lewis explores, "Christ is a beautiful dreamer, but the word "God" I associate with the uncaring universe."
Like a blind man describing an elephant by touch, putting a tag on Trilobite's music can be hit and miss. I would say it's in the same style  as Kaleidoscope, David Lindley, Townes Van Zandt or The Handsome Family (who are Mark Ray's Albuquerque neighbors)  Trilobite maintains a line-up that includes: Jason Aspeslet (drums) Jessica Billey (fiddle) Mark Weaver (low brass) Michelle Collins (vocals) Dave Gutierrez, Michael Grimes and Brett Davis (banjo) together or in various combinations they create an eclectic strain of music with stylishly sublime lyrics and inventive melodies. Mark Ray sings with resignation, his easy vocals are Midwestern flat, melancholy is his mood of choice.   Each song reads like a short story, as repeated listens reveal new textures and lyrical subtleties. By now we can surmise that Lewis' upbringing and literary standing makes him anything but ordinary, he is a rare talent and a singer-songwriter with few equals.  Mark Ray Lewis describes his pulling away from his Southern Baptist roots as "losing my religion" it's a theme that crops up both in his writing and his music. On "Lucky Toe" Mark sings that "God has a plan for me, he loves me like lightning loves a tree." Which is to say that his compulsive nature makes him a magnet for trouble and despair. This inner struggle for peace of mind and purpose resulted in the memoir "Long Sad River" published in 2009. It tells the tale of of a young man caught up in an unhealthy relationship fed by compulsion and obsession.  With one simple line Mark sums up what ails so many men: "Before I knew her, I was all boy" as males, we are but children, until we meet the right woman. It's that desire and need that will drive us to the edge of madness, but it does make us  men in the process. For Mark it takes him to the very brink, Faun the girl of his dreams, suffers from a fractured soul, the result of being orphaned in Germany and then adopted by her American parents. Overly protective of her, they disapprove of Mark and forbid them to see one another, which is the opening salvo of a long drawn out and nasty war of wills. Mark and Faun are caught up in a frenzy of sexual activity and emotional dependence "The weather was either sublimely gorgeous or it was hailing frozen blue fire and we failed to notice." 
For Mark, the outcome is prolonged, he can't win and ultimately he survives simply by not self destructing.  Many men have their "Fauns" but not many can channel the experience into something as vivid and touching. The author's description of the book is always the best: "It was written when I was on the cusp of becoming both a motherless child and a father.  It’s the true story of how I got started down the good path of disbelief, which, like all the best catastrophes, began by falling in love." Mark Ray Lewis has released two albums as Trilobite, the self titled debut, released in 2006 and Silver Skin which came out in 2008. Both albums stand alone as examples of Lewis' creative genius, but they also fit in with the Balkan/Folk movement that has taken root in Albuquerque. (best exemplified by Zach Condon & Beirut, The Zoltan Orkestar, A Hawk and A Hacksaw and Eva Ave) To me, Albuquerque has always seemed more Midwestern than Southwestern. It's only natural that Mark Ray Lewis would make his home here, and we are enriched by his choice.   Love...a man would do good to live his life free of it, to cast it aside like a fleeting thought, but that man would have to do the impossible and that is to live without being loved.