The first time I saw Lee Ketch perform, he was a junior at Wheaton College. Sitting on a leather-topped stool in our student union, he strummed an acoustic guitar and sang. One of his songs built up to a great throaty yawp. People cheered. It was intense. I remember feeling as though I’d seen a real artist doing his thing. At a school as taut with surface tension as Wheaton, the unselfconscious abandon with which Ketch performed was a rare and fascinating thing to see.Mooner’s sound is so American and their songs so nostalgic the album should practically wear a varsity jacket.
Today, Ketch writes, sings, and strums for Mooner, a Chicago rock/pop group with a thick but controlled sound. Masterpiece, Mooner’s highly-anticipated full-length debut, is made up of polished and perfectly-balanced tracks, but Ketch’s throat is still there, underground, providing ambient heat. Mooner is offering Masterpiece free as an early release to Christ and Pop Culture members.
Mooner’s sound is so American and their songs so nostalgic the album should practically wear a varsity jacket. This is a guitar-driven band, through-and-through; for all its fine production, the effects and atmospherics never provide technical camouflage, and the compelling but unshowy musicianship is part of what makes listening to Mooner such a pleasure. John Gargiulo co-leads on guitar with Ketch; he also contributes on mandolin and 12-string.
Steve Slagg’s keys arrive decisively at essential moments, as when they become audible with clear strikes over the flowing guitar in “Anytime.” Joining the lineup a couple years ago, Slagg’s unobtrusive falsetto provides fine higher-register harmonies when tracks take a sweeter turn. The combination of meaty rock and confectionary pop sensibilities makes Masterpiece a rich meal. The sweetness reaches a point of near-saturation on certain tunes, what with the synth twirls and all, but Ketch’s grounded lyrics and hooks keep things palatable throughout.
Repeat listens have given me an appreciation for the variety of textures between tracks. Studio effects are used to great effect, as “I Don’t Believe You” demonstrates. Listen, too, for the call-and-response between Ketch and Slagg, whose high notes provide a bit of tasteful bunting for “Why Don’t You Want To?” “I’ll Be a Writer” is an easy-going-twilit-summery ramble, with guitar parts that drawl and a bit of cymbal riding that sounds as light and precise as a crystal clock. The title track is a tender love song that contains the manifold of a young marriage’s first years of experience: “It’s my masterpiece, this love that you gave to me.”
For the specificity of the feelings it brings back for me, “Alison” is my favorite track. This is a song for a Friday afternoon before a high school football game—or for the ride up to church camp, where the song is set: “You’re so cruel, you’re so divine / I want to make your piety mine / oh Lord Jesus, give me a sign.” My own first crush was named Alison, and by God, I met her in a church setting, too. What heady times; how they sparkled with possibilities.
At the end of the day, what’s most striking to me about Masterpiece is Mooner’s sure-footedness. The album is characterized by the confidence of a band that has found its own unique point of access to a genuinely American spiritual stratum. Mooner’s versatility within the pop-rock genre reinforces this idea. Softer tracks involve what I think of as the “acoustic gambit:” the chancy paring-down of musical layers and concomitant placement of the front man’s voice at the front and center. This exposure would scupper a rock singer of lesser talent, but Ketch does just fine in the contemplative register. And, thank God, he even has things to say.
“Never Alone,” for example, is a thoughtful, slower track happily untroubled by the risk of sentimentality: “And only Jesus used to hear me when I cried / and like my savior, you appeared at my side”; “I’ve searched the tomb a thousand times and he is gone / but with you, I’m never alone.” An unexpected noise break again demonstrates Mooner’s confidence, which is the coin of this realm; the instrumental crescendo puts me in mind of a road trip across an America that is never seen, but often felt.
That spectral America: It’s all here; it’s all waiting for you. Just remember that if you see an eagle, decorum requires pointing with pursed lips instead of an outstretched hand. Enjoy the fireworks. We’ve still got a few days of summer left.