Yet Another Good Album From L’il Mo & the Monicats
As a songwriter and bandleader, L’il Mo A.K.A Monica Passin has been a major player in the New York Americana roots music scene since the 90s. Her music is traditionalist yet completely in the moment, a mashup of early 50s pre-rockabilly, western swing and straight-up country that actually could have existed back then, considering how much cross-pollination there was going on between all of those styles of music. Yet as much as the instrumentation is oldschool, her songwriting is in the here and now, and uniquely her own. For example, on her latest album, Whole Lotta Lovin, one of the tracks is a Tex-Mex ballad, but with a balmy feel that captures a Coney Island setting. Not something that probably existed fifty years ago, but something that could have been if there’d been more traffic between Brooklyn and Nashville.
This is Passin’s most intimate album. It’s just her on guitar and vocals, along with Drina Seay – an equally sophisticated and eclectic songwriter in her own right – serving as a one-woman choir of David Lynch girls, plus producer Hank Bones on a guitar store’s worth of instruments including guitars, bass, lapsteel, drums and cornet. The production matches the sparse but spirited arrangements of the era that the songs hark back to. The albums opens with the title track, taking a tune straight out of Buddy Holly (it modulates), adds glisteningly scary harmonies by Seay and a pinpoint, period-perfect guitar solo from Bones to complete the picture – all that in two minutes and four seconds.
The second track, Little Heart Attacks, evokes Patsy Cline, although Passin’s voice is higher and more plaintive: she’s got a wide open, round, rustic delivery full of blue notes that often evokes a young Dolly Parton, equal parts sassiness and vulnerability. Bones adds poignancy on the low end with tantalizingly brief baritone guitar and steel parts. The album’s best song, When Girls Sing has Passin and Seay doing a female Orbison thing over shuffling Nashville gothic pop and a ringing, terse twelve-string solo from Bones.
In addition to Passin’s originals, there are a handful of intriguing covers here. Three Cool Cats gets reinvented as total noir, similar to Elvis’ version of The Fever except lit up with lurid, ringing reverb guitar incisions from Bones. Real Gone Jive gets a rousing hillbilly boogie treatment with more spiky Bones reverb guitar, while Passin’s vocals give Teri Joyce’s I Can’t Help Myself an unexpectedly cool, jazzy Chris Connor/Bliss Blood ambience. The album goes out on a high note with a Passin original, Too Much Time with Your Tears, a jaunty blend of 60s soul and C&W, full-bodied vocals and boomy bass alongside Bones’ artful R&B guitar that eventually builds to a biting solo. Along with her vocals, Passin’s guitar work also deserves a mention – she doesn’t confine herself to strictly playing chords, roaming all over the fretboard as she airs out her collection of oldschool country, rockabilly and blues licks. Anybody with a thing for vintage Americana sounds – like the Sweetback Sisters, featured on this page recently – is in for a treat with this one.