What seems a very long time ago I went along to an acoustic spot in Cambridge to catch up with a friend (apologies to both Mark Day and Jon Wright, given that I can’t remember which of the two it was. Perhaps I can recoup some credit by saying I wish they had both been there ?). I knew nothing about who was going to be on the bill that night: one of the guys had toured with Neil Young (frustratingly no idea of his name) and he played a free-roaming version of Little Feat’s marvellous “Dixie Chicken”. The other guy was Mark Browning, the man behind Ox. He was playing CB2 that night to promote his debut record “dust bowl revival”, something his website proudly declares the first indie record to top Canada’s national college radio chart. It got good coverage here but, as is so often the case, despite being well-liked and generously applauded, Mark hasn’t gone on to enormous fame.
I don’t really remember much about the gig – I was catching up with an old friend after all – but I must have liked Ox enough to buy the LP which, despite a couple of run-outs over the years, never really got the time it deserved. The record was released on Ox Music/cinnamonsongs (Mark’s own label), catalogue number DBRV0119, featuring the startling labels “BROWNING A” and “BROWNING B” in the run-out grooves on side one (Nebraska) and side two (Manitoba – the negative image of the colour cover) respectively.
“transam” itself, the album opener, garnered plenty of praise. It’s a song that, no matter how sweet the chorus might be, is one of desperation and a narrator on the brink of tumbling off the edge of a cliff. We don’t know how far he might fall but that fate is lurking, prowling like the guitar distorting in the background (despite the quirky, is-it-evidence-of-character-or-is-it-bad-judgement segue into the Bond theme tune). You can hear it in the narrator hoping that, no matter how bad his own situation, Abraham “whose shit seems in the fan”, hasn’t also fallen on hard time: that loss of centre might just bring the whole ramshackle house down.
“brand new key” charmingly takes off The Wurzels, and features shimmering country guitar, and proper, song-enhancing backing vocals (both fuzzed-up and top-of-the-scale) before we are treated to what feels like the first fully-conceived and -crafted song, “carolinah”. A light, coaxing rhythm and sensitively-applied slide guitar blend seamlessly with bittersweet lyrics perfect for summer mixtapes all over:
do your lips still taste like strawberry wine
summer air and chamomile”
Ox reach a moment of Springsteen worship on the duo of “stolen bike” and “stolen car”. They’re more The Boss’s in spirit on the former, and a direct homage on the latter, playing on “Racing in the Street”. “stolen bike” suffers from the simple problem of going on for too long – at the initial declaration of “I heard a shotgun riding a seaty down hollywood boulevard/I get so hard I’m riding tall” I’m still with him but four minutes later the song has overstayed its welcome. A little more editing and it could’ve been a contender. the opening half of “stolen car” melodically and rhythmically feels so close to that Springsteen number but Ox has something up his sleeve, unleashing a bouncing folk-rock song on us from behind the bare bones of voice-and-piano. If you’re going to pay tribute to someone’s output why not aim high eh ? As he says himself, “if you got the balls girl, we can go far in a stolen car”.
“she shot me down” has a solid enough chug to it, before it breaks apart with a lost drum-beat, and “promised land” is a lovely version of a Julian Cope song from his 1991 album “Peggy Suicide”. There’s something doom-laden about Cope’s original, informed by climate change and the poll-tax – over a decade later and Ox’s version is optimistic, pretty even. Pink Floyd’s ‘fat old sun” (written by David Gilmour, on 1970’s “Atom Heart Mother”) is next and again it’s an improvement on the original as far as I’m concerned. Pink Floyd’s original is frankly a bit weedy, notwithstanding some characteristically good soloing from Gilmour. Browning has the better voice and his arrangement captures the dreamy beauty of the described bucolic scene more completely.
The album ends with the miserable ballad “north country girl” and if I recall correctly this is the song that really got me to buy the album.
“this place stinks of shit
and i can’t feel my toes
when the needle last broke off
god only knows”
Cheery stuff. Browning spends the whole song documenting the woefulness of his existence, and determines to get the fuck out of dodge. He also spends the whole song bemoaning the existence of the ‘loser’, the ‘beauty’, who somehow helped bring him to the aforementioned low. Of course, as indie, country and folk fans, we know where this is going: an admission of remaining affection (“farewell to you sweet north country girl/I still wish you were here”), and possible speeding himself to his end (why else say goodbye to Mum ?).
Mark is still Ox, now recording out of Sudbury, Ontario and Dave’s Cosmic Guitar/Sound Emporium. If you’re in the area, look him/them/it up and I think you’ll find it worth it to check out his continuing musical adventures…