Anytime a rock musician who plays the piano emerges from the woodwork, the inevitable comparisons to either Billy Joel or Elton John ensue. It happened with Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, and countless others who haven’t had as much success. It’s bound to happen mostly because of the heights that the two reached, having emerged at nearly the same time in the early seventies. Not only that, they have a weird Lincoln / Kennedy thing going on with the number of letters in their names. But they had distinctly different styles despite sharing the same instrument. The American, Joel, was a storyteller by nature, influenced by the likes of Phil Spector and Paul McCartney’s Beatles compositions while the Brit, John, was the musician (Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics), influenced by John Lennon’s Beatles compositions, but far more flamboyant in his delivery.
Enter Mark Mallman. This Midwesterner has been playing music in and around his hometown for the past five or six years but has gone relatively unnoticed outside of that sphere. Mallman definitely seems to fall more under the Elton John camp, but has flashes of both, and even sometimes Joe Jackson and Ben Folds. However, what Mallman is most known for is not his short pop songs. He is most known for a piece called “Marathon”, a 26.2 hour performance, non-stop, with a rotating band backing him up. The piece contained over 300 pages of lyrics! Crazy? Not nearly. He followed that up with “Marathon 2”, a 52.4 hour performance piece with more rotating band members and over 600 pages of lyrics! But now Mallman is back to standard pop song structure with his latest release.
Mr. Serious is the first album from Mallman on Badman records after a host of albums on smaller labels. It kicks off sounding like a song off of either the Footloose or Flashdance soundtrack, from a requisite ridiculous scene of a youngster dancing in some abandoned factory or mill, where, in reality, the dancer would have probably impaled themselves or fallen to their death. But in the chorus, which is true Elton, he sings the title, I Just Want to Play Piano! His excitement and passion for the instrument is tangible. “Hardcore Romantics” is a very pretty pop song in somewhat a Hall & Oates style mixed with a little Ben Folds and is the first of a few love songs in the first half of the album. “True Love” brings forth another comparison that will also be found throughout the rest of the album, that to Freddie Mercury. His vocal tones and energy are so similar that it’s eerie. Combine Mallman with Tom Chaplin of Keane and you have the whole package. While Chaplin embodies the soaring operatic side of Mercury, Mallman captures the rocking gritty side.
“Simply in the Distance” returns to an Elton approach while “Executioner” is another Mercury-like song circa News of the World. The first half of Mr. Serious seems rooted in the themes of love and the second half goes into darker territories. The aforementioned “Executioner” is quite dark as he sings some of these gruesome lyrics:
“I am your executioner, I did not hear your case
I only see a target when I look into your face
I will lay your life, I will lay your life to waste.”
The track also recalls some from the Roger Waters songbook, specifically from The Wall. Listening particularly to about 2:17 into the song when the chorus of voices backs him up is creepy and Pink Floyd-ish. “Hard Night” is a song that must have been composed after a long night of getting high and listening to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Mallman even adopts a Wayne Coyne manner in the song.
“The heart is a loaded weapon”
This is the lyric from a song with the same title. In this one, Mallman takes the dark concept and does what the most creative do and transpose it with peppy and bouncy music. It’s one of the most enjoyable songs on the album for sure, even amongst a whole slew of other good songs.
Mallman walks on the edge of being incredibly cheesy at times, but never quite crosses that line. Like Ben Folds, Mallman manages to take piano clichés and turn them on their ears, making fun and sometimes serious music out of hackneyed styles and techniques. Mr. Serious is a pop gem, a little rough around the edges perhaps, but Mark Mallman is well on his way to breaking out of his Midwestern rut. This is what piano pop should be. I hear stuff like the supposedly `edgy’ Jamie Cullum, and I just want to hurl blunt objects at him. Rather than presume to cover Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix, and taboo of all taboos, Jeff Buckley, Mallman’s compositions are all his own. So please, before you fall prey to the gloss and sheen of other piano players blanketing the airwaves, give Mark Mallman a listen. He’s the real deal.
Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs
Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Queen- News of the World