DOWNSTAIRS KARAOKE (1999)
After years of behind-the-scenes collaboration with choreographers and filmmakers, multi-instrumentalist Mark Growden steps into the spotlight as an extraordinary songwriter and bandleader on Downstairs Karaoke, his debut full-length CD of warped pop balladry and evocative folk-based storytelling. Released on his own Wiggle Biscuit Records label, the album’s opening track, “House of Love,” sets a strangely hypnotic mood with an eerie, languid waltz pumped full of sonic exotica — glockenspiel, accordion, xylophone, “grandma’s organ” — all played by Growden. Nightmarish lyrics haunt the leader’s theatrical melody, which swims darkly beneath Sgt. Pepper’s waters. And this is just where the weird fun begins.
“Squeaky Persimmon” is a frantic-paced ditty about an odd fruit and a duck. “Gimme” peeks its pighead out from under the big top with tuba, trombone, and a plump marching beat. And the eight-minute “Takin’ My Time” stretches out a sumptuously junky, lethargic beat lifted directly from a Tom Waitsian alcoholic daze.
Beneath nearly every tune, Growden finger-picks folky chord changes on banjo or acoustic guitar. On “Rental Car,” one of the album’s most eloquent tracks, he goes solo and Beck-like: “Sometimes I feel like an old piece of toast/ Forgotten in the toaster/ For a couple of days/ And mistakenly put in the freezer.” The chorus is an original mantra to live by: “I need a band-aid/ I need a safety pin/ I need a paid vacation in Tahiti with an air-conditioned rental car.” This last line would be a mouthful for any folk singer, but Mark Growden’s no ordinary balladeer; he’s seen the future of karaoke, and it’s weirder than you ever imagined.
Sam Prestianni – SF Weekly
A familiar voice to local music lovers, Berkeley’s Mark Growden has played in town at What Is Art? and UCSC numerous times over the last year. (He even thanks What Is Art? and locals like Matthew Embry in the liner notes.) He’s recently released his first full-length album, Downstairs Karaoke, and on it Growden mines a deep well of sonic styles, utilizing eclectic sounds from exotic instruments–xylophones, tabla, glockenspiels, grandma’s organ–many of which Growden plays himself. His songwriting is rooted in folk but he adventures into klezmer, into Indian-influenced sounds, into experiments with feedback, all while maintaining a distinct sense of continuity. While these forays into eclecticism establish Growden as a musical oddity, it’s the tranquil, simple songs, the ones with just some acoustic clicks and strumming, that showcase his warm, resonant voice. It’s that voice, along with his gift for wordplay (as in “Rental Car” where he sings “Sometimes I feel like a piece of red meat/Precariously placed on a conspicuous plate/ In the middle of table at a potluck for a bunch of young vegans”), that makes Growden so intriguing.
Karen Reardanz – Santa Cruz Metro
San Francisco’s Growden is a very talented guy, a multi-instrumentalist, performance artist, filmmaker, and musical collaborator (with THE GRATEFUL DEAD’s BOB WEIR and avant garde dance choreographers). Now this debut CD shows off his many musical sides. While he can get all frenetic and goofy on some numbers, he can also swing right around and stab you in the heart with his moving words and touching music. His songs span the ragtag boozy balladry of Tom Waits and the humorous shenanigans of They Might Be Giants. The music accompaniment filling in the cracks of his songs varies from strange circus dirges to Phillip Glass-style minimalism. My personal favorite is “Dirt Road,” a simple folk song with guitar, tabla, and heartfelt lyrics. An impressive treat.
TUCKER PETERTIL – Big Takeover