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GAC Album Review: Old Man Markley’s Down Side Up

Old Man Markley

Old Man Markley’s 2013 album, Down Side Up.

Country music’s fringe is an exciting part of the genre where artists freely explore new sounds and styles. From time to time, we like to share some of these unique artists with you. Introducing…Southern California’s Old Man Markley.

In addition to the ability to store thousands of songs on a single device, the iPod’s legacy has also created a world where music fans have access to an unimaginably diverse cross-section of artists. Want to check out a murder ballad by The SteelDrivers before listening to an alienated alt-rock classic from The Offspring? That’s not a problem. In fact, why not just create a playlist blending everything together?

Speaking to the huge number of music fans just a click away from each new genre, groups like Old Man Markley have emerged to blur the lines even further. Matching SoCal pop/punk with traditionally bluegrass instrumentation, OMM is releasing their sophomore album, Down Side Up, on March 5 as part of a “newgrass” movement pushing the boundaries of both genres.

Down Side Up, which was produced by OMM lead singer Johnny Carey and SoCal punk hero Fat Mike (frontman of LA punk band NOFX), is a 13-song project combining the acoustic purity and frenetic pacing of bluegrass with an us-against-the-world punk perspective. Don’t you think it’s time to rip off the blindfold, or just keep doing what you’re told?, Johnny sings on “Blindfold” with a nasal delivery reminiscent of alt-rock band The Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood. And even though “America’s Dreaming” leans a little political, stories of blue collar struggle will resonate with country fans as the theme is pulled straight from the classic Honky Tonk storybook.

Self-reliance is a major theme on the album, be it on “Upside Down,” where autoharp player Annie DeTemple takes a turn on lead vocals, or the slightly abstract, “So Much More,” which builds around the empowering line, We’re all so much more than what we’re not. It seems the septet adheres to the DIY mantra, and it continually comes through on the record. In fact, on the album’s most comical song, “Beyond The Moon,” where Johnny sings, [he doesn’t] want to lose [his] mind like Gary Busey did, the worst outcome is the one in which he can’t look after himself. The irony, of course, being that he’s self-aware enough to realize the possibility.

The playing on Down Side Up is extremely tight. Banjo player John Rosen is continually burning up his fingers, like on the appropriately titled, “Fastbreak,” while the Joey Garibaldi (bass) and Jeff Fuller (drums) rhythm section is completely locked in step. “Hand Me Down” showcases warm harmonies and a band that has obviously grown comfortable playing together. Ryan Markley adds washboard and Katie Weed provides fiddle to fill out the sound.

Katie deserves a special shout-out for her fluid and instinctive playing. She makes her instrument sing out loud on the album-opener, “Blood On My Hands,” and then traces the chord progression with a loose rock groove on the standout road song, “Rehearsal.” Her creative playing and feel for a song continually makes for stirring passages.

Down Side Up shows that bluegrass and punk might not really be that far apart. When Johnny sings with a pop/punk melody, Hittin’ whiskey gets you through empty roads that don’t lead to you, on the lovesick “Hard To Understand,” the genres seem to be working hand in hand. And on the album-closer, “Too Soon for Goodnight,” a ¾-time ballad balancing the worlds of caffeine-aided alertness and the dark dreams to come, the feeling hints at a stormy Appalachian tale though the melodies are drawn from ’90s alt-rock. It’s a convergence that gives Down Side Up a unique sound, and one that fans of both genres should enjoy.

Key Tracks – “Blindfold,” “Beyond The Moon,” “Rehearsal,” “Blood On My Hands”

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