“Come a little closer, get away from me. Please get a little closer away.”
This line couplet is on the third track, Closer Away, of Mason Cramer’s album entitled Cowabunga Breakfast – Mission 4. Although, when taken alone, this snippet hardly serves justice in presenting the work as a while, it is a decent encapsulation of the theme and feel of the compilation. We have a heartfelt thought, delivered with authenticity, as written in a clever, lighthearted manner, that is likely to be appreciated even more on a repeat listen than on the first.
If that sort of jam sounds appealing, then boy, are you going to enjoy this Breakfast. Technically, Cowabunga Breakfast is the performer name, while Mission 4 is the album. For the purposes of this piece, and in light of the material, Cramer will be the focus here. Available as a choose-your-own-price download on Bandcamp, the 12-track collection defies a simple comprehensive description. To put it at its simplest, all tracks feature Mason Cramer on an acoustic guitar.
But three of the tracks are purely instrumental, while the rest have proper lyrics and vocals. Then again, “proper lyrics” might be a stretch, seeing how portions of both Stoned Ape and Waitin’ on the Magnet seem to devolve into utter gibberish; albeit, a measured gibberish of calculated chaos, the sort of gibberish that crawls into your brain and makes a tidy home.
Furthermore, trying to place the project into a genre box proves difficult. One inclination might be to label it Folk and move on (perhaps something like “alt-prog folk,” for the Pitchfork crowd), yet hearing Cramer’s rapid, skillful delivery on the multi-syllabic rhymes of Extremely Slippery Gold makes you wonder how he would do on a rap try. We might eagerly go for a spoken-word piece, too.
No song is longer than four minutes, and none are shorter than one. Cramer clearly has an affinity for his instrument, bending the strings to his will, mastering their voice and showing an impressive range. One of the aforementioned instrumentals, Temple of the Moth, sounds more like it was performed with a hammer dulcimer. The first track, another instrumental called Moss Graffiti, is a fantastic choice to showcase a high production value right away, as it honest-to-Jesus sounds like it could feature as the intro for a mainstream commercial artist.
Cramer takes care, though, to ensure that this is about more than just some fancy licks and nifty chord transitions. While Closer Away, as quoted earlier, might sound like his most personal selection of the dozen at first, the opposite may actually be true, in a way: The message is transparent, explicitly spelled out in anecdotal form and insights. A listener can nod along, understanding the gravity of the words and phrases. In a strange manner, this makes it more accessible – many of the other tracks are shrouded in metaphor, analogy, whimsy, and parable.
There is a great little ditty called Bug that operates under the assumption that the first-person protagonist is a small insect. The central phrase in Last Stand in Mertland is, “Aluminum foil will do in a pinch.” Sure, you might passively hear such a thing at a family holiday gathering, but what does it mean in this context? Why would I want to blame my occasional dizziness on the moon, as another lyrical jaunt suggests? And just where the heck is Pumpkin Town, anyway?
The wonderful angle to this treatment is that Cramer, if I know him like I think I know him, is not the type of dude to really have One Big Agenda he intends to convey. He would probably be thrilled to know that many people can get many different things out of this set. This is definitely more about the experience and enjoyment than any single interpretation. Not to go too far into the post-modern hipster end of the review pool, but this is certainly a the-journey-is-its-own-reward bit of musical styling.
That is not to say that there are not some discernible themes. There is an attractive humility present, forged by an appreciation for the simple stuff in life. The joy of simply hanging out with friends, the oddity of authority, and the self-destructive ways we try to escape the more heartbreaking parts of our existence all make an appearance. “I don’t complain about the pain,” one song tells us, then later, “You got to find your soul as the wheels go round.” Self-discovery can be important, but also difficult, so have fun in the meantime. That could be one lesson, anyway, tucked between the purple Kool-Aid and tokens for old arcade games that we encounter.
However, curious onlookers should note that this product is not for the ears of straightlaced prudes and easily offended squares. That is to say, there is explicit language on some songs, and a few deal with mature themes, such as sex and drug use. This could be seen as just further marking how genuine Cramer is, and one can imagine that most will not mind. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning.
Overall: This is a good, fun album. Ranging from manic fury to delicate precision, Cowabunga Breakfast spans a broad spectrum, yet always feels like a cohesive structure. The music shines on a level both technical and emotive. I can confidently recommend it as a worthy purchase, worth a handful of dollars you will likely not really miss anyway.
Seriously, a couple of the tracks are worth a few bucks each on their own, in this reviewer’s opinion. It almost feels bad to have tried to describe them, possibly spoiling the niftiness of hearing a first play without expectations. In the interests of full disclosure, this performer does have another album available as well.
If Cowabunga Breakfast was a small-town diner, you would visit for the hot coffee of clever lyrics and the delicious apple pie of some high-quality acoustic guitar work. You would stay for the surprisingly pleasant conversation with the guy sitting next to you.
Then again, it might help if you grew up watching Brave Little Toaster as a kid. Just trust me on that one.
Eric Bailey blogs at NintendoLegend.com, where he is reviewing every American-released NES video game. He also serves as Editor-In-Chief of retro gaming features site 1MoreCastle.com, and can be followed on Twitter @Nintendo_Legend.