Tracy Bonham’s career trajectory seems to run in reverse; with each record, she gets riskier, coming a long, long way from the bottled-up furious angst of her ‘90s alt-rock staple “Mother Mother. ” Masts of Manhatta, her fourth album and first since 2005’s Blink the Brightest, ups the ante from that haunting record by accentuating its elliptical turns, its songs dodging conventional routes in favor of left turns. Bonham is assisted greatly by Beck guitarist Smokey Hormel and his trio, who lend her songs earthiness and art, giving this heft and welcome unpredictability.
Its title cribbed from Walt Whitman, Masts of Manhatta finds Tracy Bonham describing a quieter, more grown-up life, one she and her hubby split between Brooklyn and Woodstock. ”I hear a young sparrow,” she sings. ”Oh, it’s your ringtone.” The music straddles that urban/rural divide with tasty jazz-roots arrangements by Beck’s ex-guitarist Smokey Hormel.
The temptation with the singer and musician Tracy Bonham is always to reduce her work to a snappy explanation. In 1996, her smash hit “Mother, Mother” was girl-power rock in the Morissette mode, her sophomore release Down Here was a change-of-pace bid for critical acclaim, and her last full-length, 2005’s Blink the Brightest, established her as a slow-working artist who keeps getting better. The pat explanation of Bonham’s new Masts of Manhatta goes like this: Bonham now splits her New York life between urban Brooklyn and rural Woodstock, and this recording reflects that divide: more folk textures and fiddle playing mix with an indie attitude and hip songwriting.
Tracy Bonham is highly regarded as a songwriter, musician and performer, one whose violin has backed prominent artistes such as Juliana Hatfield, Aerosmith, Eels, some of the musicians she has either written for or recorded alongside, and assisting her in the recording of her 4th album are some of Tom Waits drinking buddies. So I find myself forced to ask, why isn’t hers a name I recognise? After all, her first album, 1996’s The Burdens Of Being Upright earned her a gold disc and several award nominations, and Bonham appears to have written and recorded constantly ever since, apparently happier to follow her own instincts and maintain an artistic distance from her erstwhile collaborators, and the results of this altruistic approach to her own work make for continuously rewarding, if occasionally less than comfortable listening. Taking its title from a Walt Whitman poem, Masts Of Manhatta is a hugely accomplished and skilfully arranged collection of songs and if there’s one thing you couldn’t accuse Tracy Bonham and her backing band of, that is playing safe in terms of influences and instrumentation, definitely.