Mack Starks is one of those rare American treasures, really. After blowing the minds of the lucky music listeners who heard his soulful voice sing his emotional and well-crafted songs on his 2003 solo debut Elsewhere, Starks returns again in 2005 with a new full-length to further amaze fans. Entitled Blind Spot, Starks’ new release is a study in restrained folk-rock. The tension brought by the lush production by fellow Nashville artist Neilson Hubbard is a palatable backdrop for Starks’ raw lyrics and gruff voice. Blind Spot displays again Starks’ exceptional ability to write powerful songs, and his even rarer ability to pull them off without the slightest notion of pretentiousness.
To these ears, Blind Spot sounds a bit more resigned than Elsewhere, as if the wounds in the previous release have overcome the weary songsmith. Indeed, with songs having titles such as “Depression Blues”, “Enough”, “All I can Do”, “Parasite”, and “The Fog That Follows”, one cannot help but think that Blind Spot is really a blues album in disguise. However, a lot of the resignation that fills the mood of Blind Spot can be attributed to Hubbard’s generally dreamy and sometimes slightly quirky production enhancements. Rather than casting Starks’ as a down and out bar brawler with a cigarette between his teeth and a bottle in his hand (a tempting picture to paint with Starks’ imperfect curt of a voice), Hubbard bathes Starks’ songs in softer tones. Muted guitars, keyboards, organs, and plenty of sensitive background vocals (many provided by Hubbard himself) permeate throughout Blind Spot. The end result is a collection of 10 songs in which the music is not overwhelmingly dark or depressing, but rather sombre and reflective, perfectly enhancing Starks’ lyrics, which can be described in exactly the same way.
The highlights on Blind Spot are many and varied. “All I Can Do” is a wonder of a song, with light percussion and a picked acoustic guitar heralding the songs opening moments. As the song builds and Starks’ sighs lines such as “In my head, where I see you the most, as if you’d become a ghost, you haunted me”, differing layers of dreamy keyboards, organs, and guitars are added. The song crescendos into an exquisite outro, complete with Starks breathing fantastic and sad vocals in the background as various guitars chime towards the end of the song. The title song is another slow builder, perfectly sliding into the tension of lyrics such as, “There’s no place you could put me that I haven’t already been”. Only this time, the song builds not to a dreamy postlude, but to an almost rocking climax, complete cymbals crashing and a George Harrison-esque slide guitar. At this point, Starks expertly reveals the climax also of the song structure, as he introduces a new melody that the song had been building to for five minutes. “Enough” is another dazzling song, this time featuring a sparser production, as electric percussion provides a rhythm for spacious piano and guitar arrangements. And with Starks’ aching voice in fine form, singing along with Hubbard’s recognizable tenor “I thought I understood you and that would be enough. Enough to see you through when I could barely see you”, the sparse arrangements wisely give centre stage to Starks’ pain-filled lyrics. “Orphan” charges forth with galloping snare beat and an array of organ and guitar sounds towards a lush refrain towards the song’s end. Blind Spot ends on another highlight: a cover of Neil Young’s “Depression Blues” that is slow, pensive, and thoughtfully sublime.
Indeed, a nod to Young in discussing the music found on Blind Spot is not totally out of place. For, like the legendary Canadian, Starks plays a brand of singer-songwriter heartland music that is yet spacious, genre-defying, and rich in lyrical imagery. With country overtones and a hint of dreamy folk, Blind Spot creates a vivid musical landscape for the listener. And by stretching his signature songwriting to fit a more sumptuous and subtle sound, Starks shows an ability to mature and grow even more as an artist. Another fine release from this American treasure.