July 2003

Mark Insley - Supermodel
Rustic Records 7449-ECW
Released: 2003

by David Cantor

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

Supermodel is a very appealing disc. There are several reasons for this, but a big one is its restraint. The arrangements are full, but they don’t scream at you. Neither does Insley. He sings as vocal trainers recommend: as if he were talking. The melodies are distinctive, but they hype neither themselves nor the singer. Much of Insley’s expressiveness comes from his quiet approach, his willingness to subordinate many syllables to others that deserve emphasis. Clare Muldaur, daughter of the excellent long-time folk-blues singer Geoff, sings some lovely harmonies, too.

Another attraction is the way Insley manages to construct original songs with very simple chord structures and rhythms and also pull nice, plain ones by other writers into the mix. One might think there’s little involved in writing such basic songs, but it is extremely difficult to be clear and simple without constantly making the listener think he or she has heard this somewhere before.

The disc offers a fairly even balance between country-sounding tunes and those resembling somewhat ponderous early-'70s rock along the lines of "Country Girl" on CSNY’s Déjà Vu album or some Procul Harum. The disc achieves its unity through an omnipresent acoustic guitar, Rick Shea’s tasteful pedal steel, and Insley’s vocals, and the band’s tight, straightforward playing. Supermodel is a brief disc, just nine tracks, although six exceed four minutes. Yet I don’t feel cheated, as there’s no wasted time, no long unskilled jamming, and the material contains some clever twists -- one that immediately comes to mind is Dan McGough’s piano entry at the end of "Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone To Kill)."

One problem is the preponderance of slow-moving tunes. Even though the rhythms are steady and catchy, I don’t think anyone would claim this album "rocks." My favorite track is the disc’s peppiest, Alex Brumbaugh’s "Heart out in the Snow," a touching tribute to society’s forgotten members. The song begins, "Julie works the truck stops of Nevada / Out on Highway three-ninety-five / She never gets a postcard from nobody back in Tulsa / They don’t even know she’s still alive." Then the refrain: "She didn’t set out to be no lady of the night / Down that lonesome road she never meant to go / She’s just livin’ day to day / Sometimes there’s hell to pay / When you leave your heart out in the snow." From Julie, we move on to Billy, who "sleeps out in the alley"; then a cocaine dealer; and finally the singer himself: "I didn’t set out to be no drifter …" -- all using the same refrain. Insley’s nuanced singing is very effective here, particularly in avoiding melodrama.

If all of your discs have to be the most blatant personal or political statements, the most up-to-date gimmicks, or groundbreaking classics, you’ll probably take a pass on this one. But if you’d like to hear a veteran performer play and sing some musical phrases that will stick in your head and make you cringe at humanity’s frailties while pulling an occasional chuckle out of you, give Supermodel a try.