Mickelson – Known To Be Unknown: Album Review

San Francisco singer/songwriter Mickelson brings us something that is both reassuringly familiar and yet wholly unique.

Release Date:  15th April 2022

Label: Self Release

Formats: Vinyl / Digital

First things first, then.  Mickelson is San Francisco-based singer/songwriter/artist/producer Scott Mickelson and Known to be Unknown is his fourth album.  His previous album outings – starting with his 2015 debut Flickering and including his most recent offering, 2020’s Drowning In An Inflatable Pool have gathered widespread attention in such august journals as Twangville, Mix Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle and Known To Be Unknown looks perfectly poised to take that growing recognition up to the next level.

Mickelson built his reputation in and around the Bay Area and has performed at such iconic venues as The Fillmore and The Great American Music Hall and, in 2019, he undertook his first European Tour, playing shows in Germany and The Netherlands, as well as performing extensively around the UK.  And – the good news is that he’s due back here in 2022.  Watch this space – we’ll bring you the details as soon as we get them! 

Mickelson’s music is described as “Americana folk-rock with a post-punk edge” but, as is the case with most such succinct summaries, there’s a lot more to it than that!  Sure, the Americana and the post-punk trappings are there to be enjoyed, but, listening to Known to Be Unknown, I also picked out copious lashings of psychedelia, gothic folk, straight-ahead rock, jazz and even a tiny pinch of funk.  Strummed mandolins, distorted guitars, strings, synths and horns all play their part, and the end result is a sound that is simultaneously reassuringly familiar and wholly unique.  The closest I can get to describing it is something along the lines of Richie Havens singing Battle Of Evermore whilst Hendrix and Blood, Sweat and Tears stand by, waiting to chip in.

First single, UNArmed American gets the show on the road, and all of those elements that I’ve described all come gloriously together.  It’s exciting and intenseand my only complaint was that Mickelson’s heartfelt views on gun violence and gun control, as expressed in the song’s lyrics are somewhat overshadowed by the exuberance of the song’s production.  But that’s a minor comment, and it’s put right in the album’s closing track which revisits the song in an acoustic format in which messages such as “Teachers should be teaching, not inching for a draw” come across loud and clear.

The lyrical messages of Go To Bed Hungry are no less direct, and this time they’re delivered to a backing that is alternately funky and folky, with the whole thing laced with some tasty splashes of wha-wha guitar.  Current single, Murder Of Crows is next; built around a simple mandolin theme and fleshed out with strings and piano, the song deals with the pollical and ideological divisions that have seared across western society in the wake of Trump, Brexit and the pandemic (OK – Mickleson doesn’t mention Brexit specifically – I just threw that one in, because it fits so well into the narrative…).  As Mickelson himself explains: “As the pandemic unfolded, it became painfully clear that there were two opposing views on how, as a nation, we could contain it.  It is now science and reason vs misinformation and cultural beliefs.  In ‘Murder Of Crows,’ I display both sides.”  It’s a great song, and one of several real album highlights.

In contrast, Ithaca is a strutting rocker with a fuzzy electric guitar riff and some wonderful soaring harmonica that, together, never seem to go quite where you expect them to, and the excellent Only Ugly When You Cry is a wild, interesting mix of folky mandolin and solid funk, with an unsettling lyric that manages to be violent, unhinged and self-reproachful, all at the same time.

There are a few hints vis-à-vis Mickleson’s jazz leanings scattered throughout the album, but with the magnificent Chicago Transit Authority, he goes the whole hog.  Funky, full-bodied and bursting with brass, it’s an instrumental tribute to the jazz-rock explorations of late sixties/early seventies Chicago before that band turned its back on experimentation to embrace MOR.  Straight out of the Delaney and Bonnie songbook, the gospel-tinged Die Trying is, possibly, the album’s most immediately accessible track – a great song, full of clangy guitar licks, underpinned with some wonderfully subtle organ touches and topped off by the album’s most dramatic, full-force vocal.

The short, swirling Blur In The Memory is an instrumental piece that, quite honestly, should have been much longer.  Manic drums, rock-solid bass and some alluring psychedelic guitar lock together and are starting to really cook, just as the fade-out kicks in after just over one minute.  More, please….

This excellent album is brought to a close by that acoustic reprise of the UNArmed American single.  Known To Be Unknown is a short album, but very, very sweet.  Familiar, wholly unique and well worth a repeated listen.

Watch the Official video to UNArmed American – the album’s first single – here:

Mickleson Online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Spotify / Bandcamp / YouTube

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