Mars Arizona

High Desert

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Mars Arizona -- the duo of Paul Knowles and Nicole Storto -- have been making great albums that span the spectrum of Americana and alt-country (if that label even meant anything by 2010) since they dropped Love Songs from the Apocalypse in 2002. Along the way they've made tracks that were rock, pure folk, and hardcore country without sacrificing their trademark intertwining harmonies and sharp songwriting. On High Desert they're still writing love songs with an apocalyptic slant, with the music maintaining the tension between their rock and country impulses. In places, High Desert is harder rocking than anything they've ever done. On "Nogales" Knowles channels his inner Neil Young, who is obviously a big influence, with some grinding, noisy guitar that adds to the song's dark, distressing feel. The tune could be about the end of the world or a bad relationship, with his moaning vocal and aggressive guitar upping the emotional ante. In other places the duo's love of bluegrass and acoustic music comes to the fore. The Stones' "Sweet Virginia," "Alabama Bound" (written by Knowles' cousin Stephen Dayringer), and their own tale of economic woe "Made Off Blues" all feature hot fiddle by Ollie O'Shea (who plays with Jim Lauderdale), rippling mandolin, and subtle newgrass drumming. The band's social conscience and ironic sense shine through on the faux folk-rock gospel tune "Jesus Ain't Coming Back (That Way)" and "Can We Turn the Page?," an antiwar tune that opens with an archived news report from the Vietnam War to bemoan America's continuing involvement in endless conflict. Both tunes feature the moody B-3 of Luchlann Kane and soulful guitar work from Knowles.

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