Mars Arizona 

Hello Cruel World

The population of Mars Arizona is small, just two guitar-pickin' singer-songwriters: Nicole Storto and Paul Knowles. But on their new album, they've got a lot of talented neighbors dropping by, including mandolin guru David Grisman, pedal steel and dobro ace Al Perkins, and classical/country fiddler Alisa Rose. Hello Cruel World finds the San Francisco band firmly ensconced in the rootsy alt.americana sound it began exploring on 2005's All Over the Road, marked by the duo's solid songwriting and understated arrangements. Storto opens things up with "Dirty Town," her chilling voice full of repressed violence and heartache. Rose contributes a swinging Texas-meets-Paris violin solo, and Grisman's supplies his usual subtle mastery on mandolin. "Landscape," dedicated to the city of New Orleans, showcases Perkins' blues-drenched pedal steel, complementing Knowles' gruff, distressed vocals. On "Circus," Knowles compares the country to a sideshow full of clowns who dance while ecological disaster approaches, singing in a weary tone that intensifies the bleak lyrics.

Knowles and Storto also are adept at wringing unexpected changes out of their cover tunes. They turn the early T. Rex fairy frolic "By the Light of a Magical Moon" into a bouncy honky-tonk anthem. Storto delivers an aching lead vocal on "Blue Kentucky Girl," tipping her hat to Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris without emulating either. Perkins drops some teary dobro fills into the mix while Rose's fiddle cries in the background. And "In the Pines" gets a stark, folky, bare-bones treatment highlighted by the duo's wailing, wordless harmonies.


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