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Tom Mank & Sera Smolen Tom Mank & Sera Smolen
Album: Unlock The Sky
Label: Ithaca
Tracks: 8

I was really taken with Swimming In The Dark, the album Tom and Sera released in the fall of 2013, and have been eagerly waiting for further delights from this duo ever since. Unlock The Sky may well be the followup, but it’s only an eight-track job so there may be more on the way.

Back to the biog – Tom’s a gifted Ithaca (NY) -based singer-songwriter with a soft, caressing voice that’s perfectly complemented by that of partner Sera’s smooth, silky cello playing and gently confident vocal delivery. Their individual approach to the blend of instrumental colours of cello and guitar is born of a deep (one might say inborn) understanding of the character and expressive potential of their instruments. Their playing is beautifully eloquent, both caressing and supporting the sung melodies. The album’s title track, however, is an enterprising solo cello piece by Sara which alternates a riffing motif/refrain with lyrical and experimental passages, perhaps in a kind of homage to classical improvisation in variation form. Tom’s songs are, as ever, notable for their poetic lyricism, to which Sera responds as from within – and the effect is both breathtakingly intimate and magical.

However, this is where the givens end, as it were. For, having made above reference to Sera’s vocal abilities, it will then come as a surprise (and shock), when you read the track-by-track personnel credits, to discover that Sera doesn’t get to sing at all on this new album. Instead, Tom’s engaged a number of different guest singers (Jeannie Burns, Terry Burns, Kirsti Gholson and producer Julie Last) to provide duet and/or backing vocal duty on the album’s seven songs. And in addition to Tom’s guitar and Sera’s cello, we hear some occasional, mainly unobtrusive augmentation from Ron Kristy (piano keyboard or guitar), Gait Klein Kromhof (harmonica) or Amy Merrill (violin), with – on the majority of tracks – Manuel Quintana on percussion. My pick of the new songs is probably the sensuous Calico Dress, a co-write with Kyle Carey, which finds the techniques of call and response, counterpoint and duet reaching new heights of delicate expression; closing track Amsterdam (mysteriously described as an “alternate mix”) works well too. Four of the songs turn out to be co-writes: I Left The City renews Tom’s writing partnership with Anna Coogan (Rest Of My Life appeared on Swimming In The Dark).

This is a beautifully managed and well-sounding album – but it does pose the question of why Sera’s not contributing any vocals. Hopefully that will be answered when the duo’s next album appears.

David Kidman