Since the late ’90s, with his duo/band project Messerly & Ewing, longtime Cincinnati musician Mark Messerly has showcased his ample talents as a singer and songwriter, alongside his equally talented partner Brian Ewing.
In the early ’00s, Messerly gained a new outlet to show off another skill-set, serving as a kind of utility player with Wussy, playing primarily bass but also a variety of other instruments to help decorate and help bring out the best of the songs of co-frontpeople Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker.
With Messerly’s new album project, INERT, he gets to bring those two sides of his musical persona together in a very unique way. The twist is that, while his singing and songwriting are at the core, the “ornamentation” part is mainly given over to his collaborators, a large guest list that includes numerous Cincinnati-area artists.
While INERT could conceivably be called a “solo album,” Messerly shies away from that term, instead dubbing it “a collaborative music project.” To record the album, Messerly set up camp in the recording studio and invited his “exceedingly talented friends” to join him over the course of just two and a half days. With minimal direction, overdubs or rehearsal, the songs were recorded quickly but not hurriedly in order to capture the essence of the collaborative spirit, enabling the guests and Messerly's chemistry with them to shape each track.
The musicians who swung by over those 60 hours include all of his Wussy bandmates (Cleaver, Walker, pedal steelist John Erhardt and drummer Joe Klug), plus Jerri Queen (Vacation, Tweens), Kate Wakefield (Lung), Cincy-area music festival legend Bill Donabedian (Simpletons, Crosley), John Curley (Afghan Whigs), Nick Barrows (JetLab, MacReady U.K.), John Hoffman (Swim Team, Vacation), Sean Rhiney (Clabbergirl, Pike 27), Eric Appleby (Clifford Nevernew, 7 Speed Vortex) and many others.
While the philosophy behind the recording would be impossible to pull off for many artists (or result in a sheer mess for others), INERT is a thoroughly engaging and fluid listen. Most of the tracks are under two minutes, but none ever feel like mere song sketches to be discarded or saved for later fleshing-out. It’s more like Messerly sketched a drawing then passed it around to a roomful of friends to embellish with the tools and talent they have. It’s those embellishments that bring the tracks alive with strings, voices and other instruments (though it should be noted that Messerly’s vocals and songs make for an excellent foundational sketch). That’s kind of the point — the album wouldn't sound like it does without each contributors’ input.
If you are a fan of Messerly’s previous work, there are elements of all of it represented on INTERT. Atmospheric opening tracks “Slow Suicide” and “Whispering” are built around acoustic guitar and Messlery’s smart and memorable melodic structures, which, combined with his nasally, emotive vocals, evokes Messerly & Ewing's output. But both tracks are awash in strings and guitar noise which give them a different vibe — “Slow Suicide” has that airy, fractured feel of a Daniel Lanois production, while “Whispering” builds up to a whirl of psychedelia.
Tracks like “The Worst of Us All,” “Coming Down” and “Devil Awake” have a more straightforwardly rootsy Pop Rock feel (though, again, the add-ons slant each track in unique ways), and “Lovely” would fit perfectly on a Wussy album. From a songwriting standpoint, “The First Law of Loss” stands out — if the album was the type to “have a single,” an A&R guy would probably pick that one. But INERT is best taken as a whole — the diversity and dynamism from track to track is enthralling.
The artistic teamwork that went into INTERT is also evident in the artwork and packaging of the project. INTERT will be released as a limited-edition CD this Saturday, in conjunction with a performance of the album by Messerly and his collaborators this Saturday (Oct. 13) at The Comet. And each of the 100 CDs available at the show will include a piece of original artwork crafted by some of Messerly’s writer, photographer and visual artist pals. Among those contributing to the packaging are Chuck Byrd, Matt Hart, Sean Hughes, Michael Kearns, Amy Purcell, Mark Flanigan, Michael Wilson and Betsy Young.
Saturday’s event at The Comet begins at 9 p.m. Openers are Kate Wakefield and Nevernew, a new group featuring the members of one of Cincinnati’s finest ’90s Indie Pop Rock bands, Clifford Nevernew.
Check out a great recent interview with Messlery about the project conducted by Jim Nolan for WVXU’s “Local Exposure” here. Listen to a pair of INERT tracks in the below videos (the “Whispering” clip has the full list of collaborators).