With its boxy rhythms and antiseptic vocal harmonies, the Mammals’ Departure displays a fine feeling for the way Bush-era folkie idealists fight against the constraints of rectitude. “Silk Song” slings banjo and a generic Celtic lick over a rhythm section that sounds like the Meters playing half underwater, and when the Woodstock, New York, quintet sings, “Give me diamonds or dress me up in silk/Well, I may look good/But I’ll feel as pale as milk,” the lines take a second to register.
Departure is a queasy record; the flatness of the drumming and the cheery, Association-like harmonies make lyrics like “The pleading voices sound sound sound/Aw, they pound pound pound/Yeah, but nothing is heard” almost unbearable. But when the Mammals tackle death and war in “Alone on the Homestead” or dispense advice to the young on a cover of Morphine’s “Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave,” they’re not as convincing as when they celebrate good old American sloth in Ruth Ungar’s sleepy, sexy “Please Come In.” War, death, and media clamor are nothing compared with the outrage to property Ungar describes here: “Out my door the weeds grow higher/And all my flowers are choked/I’d like to see them all on fire/And smell the smoke.”
The Mammals regard travel as a jumping-off point for contemplation of an inexorable reality, but Birdie Busch feels lucky to navigate her South Philly neighborhood or take a bus out of town for the weekend. The Ways We Try is one of the slyest neo-folkie records in recent memory, its blues loopy and eccentric, and its simple melodies often as inspired as, say, Syd Barrett’s. “I get more lost than found/In these scattered-about American towns,” Busch sings, and on the title track she moves beyond effort and ennui into a becalmed and very temporary state of grace.