Armed with a voice that calls up some combination of Mark Knopfler, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, and a team of players from all over the Charlotte music scene, Strauss spins his observational tales of people and life in a beautifully unhurried manner through the course of How In The World? In fact, the title track is a fine example of this, with sparkling harmony support from The Near Misses and Gigi Dover. Stylistically speaking, Strauss is treading a line between acoustic folk, blues, rock and the catchalls of “Americana” and “roots rock” on How In The World? It’s the quirkiness of his vocals and the hazy but relatable imagery in the storytelling that makes much of the material so compelling, as on “You Don’t Say” and “Someone Doesn’t Know Their Own Strength.”
Strauss is one of those guys that can set the mood of a song with the way he delivers the first word of the first line, and with the assistance of multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Eric Lovell on the majority of songs, the music almost always fits that mood perfectly. Whether it’s pedal steel, acoustic guitar, mandolin, rebab, various percussion, or hell, even jug, Lovell turns in just what the tune needs, never crowding Strauss’s guitar playing or the sense of space a mostly acoustic album needs. Lovell’s atmospheric pedal steel work in “Once Before” is an outstanding demonstration of this, as well is his electric work in “Here Tomorrow, Gone Today.”
It’s worth a mention that Charlotte’s music scene is quite a wonderful thing, and really not so far away. It’s been described as “incestuous” — but in a GOOD way. The group of musicians that appear on How In The World? backing up Mike Strauss also all have bands of their own, and regularly guest on each other’s albums and live shows. It’s a support system that lets these local artists grow and find their voices without feeling as though they’re competing against each other. Each visit to Charlotte surprises me in that songwriters and players that already were great are consistently getting better, and it reassures me that there are little pockets of culture here and there that actually DO attend shows and DO support the local musicians. If they don’t, the music goes away, or just doesn’t develop the way it really should.
How In The World? has a huge amount of personality as an album, and it revels in much of its eccentricity — the spoken count-ins for many of the tunes, occasional clicks and pops and overall looseness: they all conspire to make the CD feel as though it’s happening right there in your living room, and that’s such a nice thing to hear in a world where musicians feel the need to always sound bigger and louder, slicker and cleaner, often to the detriment of the material.
All in all, Mike Strauss turned out a warm, smart record that serves as a fine introduction to his music as well as the wealth of talent residing just a ways down the road. Good, good stuff. 4 stars, just because you guys might think I’m biased because I know the guy and I’m from Charlotte and all. Otherwise, well, you know, 4.9 or so.