No one writes or sings like Tom Mank. No one. He is historian, poet, and a keeper of pasts and futures. He writes of and for everyman and every man as if every moment matters. In tones of sepia, glancing into the past while keeping topics universal. He lives in a world romantic, simple emotions and truths the basis of life.
Too few know Mank's music or the brash-to-delicate cello of wife and partner Sera Smolen who is acknowledged by many people as one of the best in the world on that instrument. They have recorded a number of albums which remain under the radar in spite of the excellence and quality of the music. Over many years they have joined with a cadre of musicians which could be defined as a closed circle, though the circle never quite closes. Based in Ithaca, Mank and Smolen's reach spreads as far as Woodstock and even across the waters to The Netherlands and Belgium.
If they toured, things might be different, but their busy schedule beyond the music and occasional health issues have kept them, on the whole, close to home which, for this album, was a good thing. It is hard enough to gather a clan, so Mank used the time as opportunity to call in favors from a variety of friends and musicians, most notably Julie Last and Kirsti Gholson (voices) and Manuel Quintana (percussion), who have worked on earlier projects. The addition on the odd tracks of Jeannie Burns, Terry Burns, Ron Kristy, Kimberley Claeys, Gait Klein Kromhof, and Amy Merrill caps off a session of which Mank and Smolen can be proud.
On Unlock the Sky, Mank teams with Jeannie Burns (Hardin & Burns) for an upbeat jazzy blues tune (“Harper's Ferry”) to kick off the album, the voices light and airy, the slight blues groove the same. “Love In a Difficult World” is pure Mank, Smolen providing the beat and incidentals while Mank, Last and Gholson match voices (their work on previous Mank & Smolen albums has been stellar). Mank again duets, this time with Kimberly Claeys, on “Thunder and Lightning,” a song just outside of blues, and again with Terry Burns (Burns & Kristy) on a folk ballad (“Calico Dress”). “Ballad of the Blue Seas” is not about seas at all but the story of the Blue Seas Recording Studio which sank into the Baltimore Harbor under mysterious circumstances (harmony by Last, who also does the honors, and quite admirably, on the following track, “I Left the City.”). Mank decided to rework and include a song originally recorded on the Paper Kisses album, “Amsterdam,” and again the trio of Mank, Last, and Gholson create their magic.
The anomaly is Sera Smolen's instrumental, “Unlock the Sky.” She has studied the cello for years, worked with David Darling on improvisation, and usually has a solo composition ready when needed. As with past efforts, this is a study outside of genre as she incorporates a variety of movements into a four-and-a-half-minute work. If you want to see something, try to catch her live sometime. She makes the impossible seem easy. Myself, my wrists hurt just watching her.
There is something in the works of Mank & Smolen which is hard to describe. Mank definitely resides outside the mainstream, the music emanating from an inside filled with war, love and conflict, and Smolen--- well, read the last paragraph. The icing on the cake this time around is that Mank, known for reaching out to his peers for musical support, folded as much from as many as he could here. This is a special album, no doubt, and the results show it.
For those who have never heard Tom Mank & Sera Smolen, let me leave you with a few examples of their work. Listen closely. This ain't your Grampa's old folk music. This is Tom Mank & Sera Smolen. Not quite like anything I have ever heard.
"Oh my - yet another act that's apparently been around for absolutely years, producing a healthy run of CDs since 2000 (five of 'em!) without even making a fleeting appearance, let alone a dent, on my radar (who's been missing me out of their press mailouts then?… grr!). And yet theirs is a very distinctive sound-world that, once heard, is rarely forgotten or mistaken for someone else.
Every track on this album could be judged a highlight - there's not a trace of a makeweight in the disc's 51-minute span
The musical trademark of the duo's approach is found in Sera's wondrous, silky cello lines soaring and dipping above Tom's subtly picked guitar rhythm that's allowed to ring and chime, both elements overlaid by their captivating shared vocals.
Tom's songs are simply stunning. I'm completely won over by this very, very special disc."
"Tom Mank is a singer-songwriter originating from Ithaca New York , cellist Sera Smolen a classically trained musician . The duo performs atmospheric jazzy creations grafted to folk roots . Mank’s lively voice is sparsely accompanied with acoustic strings and harmonica here and there , performed inimitably. Their poetic meditations are exquisite, sometimes slow, but lovely in their meandering path. We hear exclusively accoustic instruments and every number is tastefully and intimately colored by Smolen’s unique cello playing. The groundwork of the recording took place in Bearsville, in Julie Last’s studio. Ms. Last whispers that on some tracks and we also hear singers Anna Coogan , Jeannie Burns, Kristi Gholson and Kyle Carey, both in the foreground and the background. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and moving CDs that I’ve heard in quite some time. "
“Tom Mank could have been a baseball player had things worked out but I’m glad he didn’t make it. If he had, chances are he would never have really given music a chance and that would not have been fair to us. He is one of those hidden treasures, holing himself up in Ithaca, New York with wife Sera Smolen and playing music to (almost) his heart’s content. I don’t know Tom, but I do. I know how much he invests himself in his music and in his friends’ music. I know that he is a good, good man and one talented sonofabitch of a musician. And I love his music. Every time he and Sera release an album (there has never been a question of each recording separately except for the occasional tune), I get nervous because Tom has gotten better with every album and I worry about that jinx so many musicians talk about, but he hasn’t let me down yet. Tom lives the folk/blues and would have fit perfectly into the old New York folk scene of the sixties.”
"Music is like a spiritual meeting place, between the listener and the musician or between friends making music together, even if they are spread far and wide and don’t happen to be in the same place at the same moment. This is possible as long as they have a soul connection and respect each other’s individuality! This cd, “Swimming in the Dark,” was recorded in several different studios: partly in the Coldbrook Studio in Bearsville, NY, but also at various other studios across New York state, in Minneapolis, MN, and even at a studio in Belgium. This does not at all detract from the general feeling of the CD. it comes across as a cohesive whole, interwoven with threads of longing and melancholy. No one else can generate such a poetic sphere the way that Tom and Sera do, enriched by the images Tom creates with words. For almost 20 years the singer/guitar player and classically schooled cellist have toured together. They seem to breathe music like heavenly dew. This album is their 6th, again produced by Julie Last, who sings along in some songs. No less than 8 vocalists join in one after the other with the warm, dark voice of Tom Mank, song poet from Ithaca. And the delicious cello sounds weave both consolation and compassion through the melodies."
Tom Mank is one of those who like to get lost in the landscape or who reach for the mystery of the moon. It makes you want to keep this album close by so you can reach for it every time the “bareable” lightness of being pulls you down."
"If you're looking for that three-o'clock-in-the-morning album, this is it. You know, when you come home polluted or just exhausted and need to wind down. When you wake up at three a.m. and can't get back to sleep. When nothing seems right and you need perspective or everything seems right and you need perspective. You see, the songs on 'Paper Kisses' are soft kisses on the cheek and quiet conversations in the night. They are late evenings and early mornings in subdued light or in the dark. They are hope and despair and joy and angst. They are a Tom Mank & Sera Smolen gift to the discerning ears of people who treasure music beyond its use as filler or background music.
The feel, the aura, the music--- they all inhabit one point in time, or so it seems. Mank has grown exponentially as guitarist, Smolen steps out of the background a bit more (which makes a huge and positive difference), and the contributions of the “guest” artists are somewhat minimal and yet crucial. Pulled together by the musical vision of Mank and Smolen and the legerdemain of producer Julie Last, Paper Kisses hits the mark and will stand on its own long after Mank and Smolen have recorded their future projects, of which I hope there to be many. What I'm saying is, it is no wonder Mank has put his last two projects into Last's hands. It is in the grooves."
"Paper Kisses" is an impressively beautiful and sensitive CD with a notable lovely leading part for Sera's melancholic 'classic' cello and the wonderful quiet singing of Tom. The poetic lyrics complete the whole in an really exemplary way. BIG SURPRISE!
"Tom Mank and Sera Smolen are so far beyond the mainstream, it's scary. They are acoustic music's Igor Stravinsky in a world of Brahms and Schumanns. I mean, Brahms and Schumann are great, but Stravinsky— man, that's adventure! Mank approaches this album like a modern beatnik, picking subjects on the edge and presenting them with unerring touch. Mank and Smolen do more with a simple acoustic guitar and cello than some chamber orchestras or jazz ensembles and when you add Last and Gholson… I have not really talked in terms of expertise. After having listened to this album numerous times, I am of the mind that Tom Mank and Sera Smolen are easily Grammy material. They are expert at their craft, but more than that, they develop it. At their level, I am not at all sure that it is a craft but art. There can't be a gig they play where a large percentage of their audience is not comprised of fellow musicians. That, my friends, is a given, and it speaks volumes."
"From the very first notes on, this CD excites your imagination. The cello of Sera Smolen and the voice of Tom Mank create magic from the opener 'Off-Beat Rhyme' until the last etherial track 'Lit By The Moon'. Both performers sense perfectly each others changes of mood. On several songs also some female harmony voices join Sera's cello and Tom's acoustic guitar; and on one song Edward Biko Smith adds conga's and on another one Julie Last, who produced this album, sings a solo. Tom Mank knows how to translate his own lyrics into poetic language: about segregation in Baltimore, lost lovers, for short songs of complaint, nostalgia and desire. But it is the Robert J. Spear cello, already for fifteen years the loyal companion of Sera, that provides the fairytale-like frame with bass-lines that sometimes reach to atmospheric heights. The 'spacy songs' wander between jazzy rhythms and folky textures with Sera's cello constantly braiding the fragments of melancholy. But she studied at the Conservatory and played in orchestras many times, which you can hear from the instrumental 'Sarkori' with a classical interpretation and being of a liberating beauty. Known for her improvisations, she has been invited by painters, poets and sculptors to frame their performances with her music or take part in cello-festivals. She also gives seminars and has her own cello-studio. On the other hand, her husband Tom Mank taught himself to play the guitar and is an inspired songwriter already since 1980. From Ithaca (N.Y.), where he lives for 30 years already, he roamed the country to disseminate his folk-blues and blue-grass live to the audience. This album is his 4th already as a duo with Sera. His talent lies in songwriting and in creatively dreaming away to horizons 'where the sun meets the blue'. His songs remain on that emotional line which perfectly keeps the balance between jazzy bluesnotes and improvising day-dreaming-blues. Sometimes his voice resembles Nick Drake. He also knows how to embrace the nostalgia of the fall as well as the spring-breeze in his songs. (This is) an album to become silent out of respect for the wandering spirits on dancing feet, reaching out for a melody and the rhythm of the beat. No better words than this 'free translation' of the passage from Tom Mank's 'Where's That Train', to describe this CD."
"Oh, there is so much crap out there! Thank heavens there are GREAT records like this to stem the tide! If you brought a pile of CDs home from a folk festival, “Souls of Birds” is the one that would end up on the top of the pile. It is risky, real and pushes boundaries in a very natural way with nary a hint of pretentiousness. Tom Mank’s low-key Lou Reed/Leonard Cohen-ish vocals have a compelling, spoken word quality to them. Mank is one of those singers who could be reciting the phone book and you’d go “yeah, there’s something to that!” The lyrics, thankfully, are a lot better than that though! Sera Smolen’s cello takes us all kinds of places weird and wonderful, while never losing touch with the emotional roots of the songs. She’s soloistic, but always in a way that supports the overall thrust of the music. Her cellistic terrain includes emotive, whacked-out natural sound effects and high-energy solos drawn from many influences, such as 19th century etudes and Indian ragas, to name but a few. Smolen is a passionate player who is clearly intimate with the inherent joy in taking musical risks. Though there are a few guest spots (violin, sarod and trumpet are featured) it is Mank’s guitar and Smolen’s cello that are the instrumental mainstays of the songs. Due to their willingness to keep changing things up, the sounds of their instruments are continually fresh and inspiring, as are the arrangements. There is always some cool new surprise poking its impish head around the corner ahead of us as the CD progresses. It is thrilling when artists dig in and craft a work as rich and vibrant and authentic as this. Five stars."