Album Review: The Mammals, 'Sunshiner'

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

It’s been twelve years since The Mammals released their last full-length album, Departure, and much has changed since then, in the landscape of music and the world. And finally, now, the band is back with thirteen new songs that remind us why people turn to music in trying times. Indeed, their new album, Sunshiner, is an energetic burst of light at a time when we could all use a little more of both.

It begins with one of the collection’s most optimistic tunes, “Make It True,” which is Shel Silverstein-ish in its poetics (“Every day is a giving day”) and the instrumentation feels celebratory and upbeat. In fact, much of the album plays out in this optimistic way, with lines of defiant positivity teeming through its holistic themes.  

In these times, it’s easy to feel as though every interaction with the news is a willful tearing open of trauma’s wound, as though the sacred has given way to the determinedly profane. The Mammals are here to reorient us to the beauty of the natural world and our place in it, and the opportunities that lie therein. Nature, after all, contains plenty of reminders to slow down and step back. (Consider how many generations can come and go—with all their petty squabbles—in the lifetime of a single tree.)

Similarly, music has a practical role to play in helping us survive times such as these, whether by providing an escape route or a tool box for building a better way. Count Sunshiner among the latter. 

For context, the Mammals have populated these songs with the moon and the stars, the water, the birds, and a path into the unknown. There’s a floating leaf from a maple tree, an ode on solar power and geothermal energy (the title track, of course). There’s the abundance of children, family, and friendships, graceful confrontations with mortality, and even the very human (mammalian?)  desire to be alone for just a moment.

Seated at track three is the conscience of the record, its underlying thesis statement: “What do you do now in a culture war?” The question doesn’t hang for long before the next song, “Beautiful One,” seems to answer: “Don’t be afraid to be loving and kind, your heart’s at least half of your mind.”

The band—singer and multi-instrumentalist Ruth Ungar and her husband, guitarist and vocalist Mike Merenda—is rounded out by Konrad Meissner on percussion, Jacob Silver on bass, Ken Maiuri on keys, and Charlie Rose on pedal steel and banjo. This time they also brought in some notable friends, like Sarah Jarosz, Amy Helm, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, and several others. Together, this sizable troupe delivers music that rocks and pops as much as it does kick back and chill.

After the barn-burner “Doctor’s Orders,” a brief three-song repose in the middle of the disc slows things down, with Ungar’s voice at the fore, delivering the wisdom and soul even as the rest of the band holds up solid support. But it’s when Merenda and Ungar are singing together, through a whole song in harmony, that the heart of this project is worn on its sleeve.

Indeed, the Mammals are all heart, and Sunshiner seems to be packed with ideas about how love will yet win over darkness and fear. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s nowhere better stated than in the final line of the final song on the disc.

Singing in unison, with instrumentation so relaxed it’s like the world’s gentlest wake-up call, the line comes out of the fog: “May we never say goodbye to all our big ideas.” 

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Sunshiner is available for order directly from The Mammals, HERE.

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