After playing bass in Lone Justice, New York-born Marvin Etzioni shouldered his mandolin and Telecaster, stashed his surname and set off on a tasteful, intelligent and inconsistent solo career. A folky humanist with a homely voice, the singer/songwriter brings a little of Tom Waits’ artful majesty and Leonard Cohen’s poetic gravity to intimate-sounding creations of love, faith and family. Arranged with plenty of acoustic variety (thanks to contributors’ accordion, clarinet, cello, strings and piano), The Mandolin Man is a handsome and tender debut — nothing more than an honest craftsman revealing his better qualities in sensitive songs like “Wings of Night” and “How Great Is the Ocean.” Etzioni is surprisingly able to make the religious inspiration that drives “God Be With Us” and others be of a piece with the album’s secular creations. Marquee-name assists come from Benmont Tench, former Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington, Peter Case and Victoria Williams, who has since done far better by the album’s heartbroken “Can’t Cry Hard Enough” than its co-author.
Bone, however, is disappointing and self-amused, a dry, dull, offhand Stonesy rock album that drops the veil of virtue and brings out the worst in Marvin’s singing and some of the weakness in his songwriting. “Hope You’re Happy,” “The Naked Truth” and “Boy Meets Devil” (co-written with Radney Foster) are the only genuinely good tunes, and they’re hardly peak achievements. The rest (discounting a fair try by his four-year-old son) are a sorry bunch.
Weapons of the Spirit returns wholeheartedly to Marvin’s belief in love and Lord and gets back to more carefully considered three-dimensional music-making with some of the same people who helped out on the first record (plus Maria McKee, Sam Phillips, bassist Jerry Scheff, Nashville viola player Tammy Rogers and Toad the Wet Sprocket). Victoria Williams duets on “Daughter of the Rainbow”; McKee loads up the romantic promises of “Temple & Shrine” with a chorus of backing voices. If the devotional lyrics weigh heavy after a while and Marvin’s singing waxes too zealous in its passionate declarations, the songs have real musical character and the performances are loaded with bright colors and memorable flavors. The gospel cradle never rocked so sweetly.