Gunpowder Tracks

Mason Summit

Borrego Records, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Some albums grab you by the lapels and demand a review, pronto; others coax and cajole their way to the front of the queue over weeks of wandering off and circling back again. Mason Summit’s Gunpowder Tracks might have taken its time igniting my imagination, but once the fuse was lit, our meeting here today became inevitable; these songs are simply too rich with unhurried charm and subtle craft to be ignored.

Gunpowder Tracks is laid-back dream-pop at its finest, full of deceptively laconic vocals, layered and varied instrumentation, and gauzy yet engaging storytelling. Singer-songwriter / producer Summit wields acoustic and electric guitars, sitar, Mellotron, synth, electric piano and rainstick, while engineer / mixer John McDuffie contributes dreamy pedal and lap steel guitars and a variety of electric guitar textures and effects. Carl Byron (piano, organ, accordion), Jeff Turnes (bass, clarinet) and Shawn Nourse (drums & percussion) round out the ensemble behind these often densely-layered tunes.

It’s hard not hear echoes of Bens Folds and Kweller in piano-based tunes like opener “Cellophane Skin,” though Summit lacks the manic fire of either, instead residing comfortably in a melancholy mid-tempo haze that he decorates with ascending vocals counterpointed by painterly strokes of steel guitar. The gently poetic lyric describes an abusive relationship from a sort of muted, helpless third-party perspective (“He’ll tear right through her cellophane skin / And she’ll wait until he does it again”). my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Another favorite, “Snakeskin Shoes, Crocodile Tears” dresses up a tart lyric about a user / grifter type who sounds suspiciously like an A&R man (“I feel as spent as a dollar in a dime store”) with electric sitar and a purposefully cheesy carousel organ. The willfully playful title track casts a similar spell, taking a witty lyric about burning bridges and adding a Dixieland horn section. (And yes, the rootsy base, dreamy feel and eclectic musical choices do make Wilco comparisons feel inevitable…)

The middle section of the album passes in a pleasant blur as variations on the above themes flash by one after another. “Detour” has a bit of a sophisticated-jazz-singer vibe (think Spencer Day), while “Suede Pockets” rotates around a thrumming organ line and “Hitting All The Reds” suggests an affection for classic Pink Floyd in its vibe of dreamy despair.

In the final third McDuffie’s reversed electric guitar lights up the otherwise acoustic ballad “Sidestreet,” while “Good Thing Going” gives a jazzy spin to a tale of romantic crash-and-burn (“We could be lovers / We could be Bonnie and Clyde / But I know, I know, I know, I know / It’s common knowledge / That I can’t seem to keep a good thing going”). Finally, the layered, snarky “Particles” gives way to closer “Last Time,” another elegy for a relationship: “There’s a last time for every first / And the last time is unrehearsed / There’s a last time for every first / And the last time will be the worst.” The arrangement really sparkles here, with electric piano, and organ, bongos, tambourine and rainstick all orbiting bass, drums and electric guitar that seem to be playing a light funk / jazz tune from around 1974.

And here’s your punchline: while it’s not surprising to learn that the sophisticated, clever Gunpowder Tracks is Summit’s third solo album, it might be once you learn he isn’t old enough yet to buy himself a beer (20-year-old Summit is a student at the USC Thornton School of Music). With this album, Mason Summit firmly establishes himself as an original voice whose low-key yet intricate dream-pop-with-jazz-inflections style complements the winding poetry of his songs beautifully.

Rating: B+

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