Mark Growden grew up listening to Motown in a logging town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, started singing in his father’s church, and discovered death metal in his teen years. A few years ago, Growden picked up accordion and banjo, not your typical singer/songwriter instruments, but Growden isn’t your usual songwriter. His mash-up of influences makes his music dark, angular, and introspective, with a skewed vision all his own. On Sand, the arrangements may be built around Growden’s banjo, but his foray into country and folk fulfill his stated desire of twisting traditional forms into peculiar new shapes.
This approach is especially noticeable on the covers he tackles. His raw vocals and sinister lyrics ramp up the drama on “John Hardy,” he sings Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” to the tune of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and transforms Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” a lament about hopeless love, into “You Ain’t Never Been Loved (the Way I Love You),” a snarling country blues that sounds like the testimony of an out-of-control narcissist. His originals are just as upsetting. “Killing Time” uses sparse imagery and a weeping dobro to describe a small town slowly being destroyed by the economic downturn, while the glum rolling melody of “Bones” augments Growden’s plaintive complaint of lost love. “Settle in a Little While” is a jaunty, bluegrassy tune, and it’s easily the most exuberant song on the album. But Growden’s manic vocals give this seemingly happy excursion a hint of disaster. (Porto Franco)