Fistful of Mercy: “As I Call You Down”
The first album from Fistful of Mercy is a laid-back, low-key, unpretentious treat– a most welcome development from a group that surely deserves to be called “super.” I give much of the credit for the music’s modesty and simple charms to Dhani Harrison; when your dad was one of the Beatles, keeping things relatively small-scale is probably the only way you’re ever going to get anywhere on your own, and everything I’ve heard and seen of the man has indicated a contentment with focusing on small gifts and the charms of straightforward, heartfelt musicianship. Harrison is joined in this trio by singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur and rock and roller Ben Harper, men who have, at various points in their substantial careers, engaged in musical conceits much broader and more grandiose than anything present on As I Call You Down; that they’re willing to work in such brotherly harmony together, producing something that surpasses any suggestions of ego or overreach in favor of more minor but lasting pleasures, is ultimately what makes Fistful of Mercy work– not because it’s a supergroup, but because the music here is simply very appealing.
The modesty of this nine-song record is evident from the outset: “In Vain or True” begins with folksy acoustic guitar strumming that quickly develops into a lovely Beatles-esque melody and warm three-part harmony. (I’m sorry to make the Beatles comparison, for Harrison’s sake, but it really is the most fitting analogy.) Herein reside the three basic gifts of this handsome little album– that is, melody, harmony, and, most impressively, a sense of genuine warmth that is hard to reproduce on record without sounding somewhat artificial, which it never does here, perhaps for reasons as simple as the fact that these three men actually enjoy each others’ company and captured the amiable spirit of their recording sessions with clarity and a lack of unnecessary fuss. And indeed, this is music that flows very organically, everything orbiting fairly close to the central fascinations with melody and vocal interplay but diverting into some lovely colors along the way, be it the soulful violin that appears at the end of that first song, the elegant piano and organ overtones that splash across “I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time,” or the bluesy slide guitar accents that Harper provides throughout the record.
The music is so comfortable in its gentle demeanor and amiable harmonies that the risk it runs is in growing too sleepy, something it does here and there, but mostly avoids thanks mainly to its brevity and focus. A bigger concern, I think, is that the music here is simply so modest that it’s easy to overlook, especially since the initial impression one gets is of the overall mood, the little details here and there, rather than of the songs themselves, which take a listen or two to begin to sink in. But there are some real pleasures here, enough to make immersion in the record a worthwhile pursuit. I’d point to four songs of special note, two because they highlight what this group captures so nicely and two because they suggest ways for the group to move forward on any future meetings. In the former camp I point to the song “Fistful of Mercy,” which doesn’t offer any deviations from the album’s basic template so much as it illuminates everything that’s so winsome about it, the three-way harmony vocal moving into positively heavenly territory and a mournful violin suggesting a certain romance, a fascination with simple, unfettered beauty. There’s also a fine instrumental number called “30 Bones”– contemplative, slightly on the bluesy tip– that suggests how deep the trio’s chemistry goes, even when the vocal harmonies are taken out of the equation.
On the other side of things there’s “Things Go Round,” a playful, almost theatrical number– again, with nods to the Beatles– that begins with staccato piano before eventually coming back to the swirl of voices and violin that characterizes much of the rest of this music. It’s a good showcase for the three different voices here, each of the singers taking a turn at the lead, but it’s also evidence of how this band’s music could be fleshed out without sounding too much like a departure. The real standout, though– and, admittedly, the most uncharacteristic song on the whole album– is “Father’s Son,” a bluesy, gospel-flavored hoe-down with hand-clap percussion from Jim Keltner and Harper’s slide guitar licks surrounding the driving guitar work from Arthur and Harrison. The arrangement is energetic in a way that much of the album isn’t, and the lyric toys with blues and country music idioms cleverly in its tale of sonship, inherited sin, and perhaps redemption. I’d be on board with an entire album of stuff like this; for now, though, Fistful of Mercy delivers a lovely record that is, despite its smallness of stature, rich with beauty and reward.