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Mando Saenz

Studebaker – 2013 (Carnival)

Reviewed by Sam Gazdziak

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CDs by Mando Saenz

What Mando Saenz' musical output has lacked in quantity (this is his first album in five years and just his third since his 2004 debut), he's more than made up for in quality. His previous albums, "Watertown" and "Bucket" were quiet, understated gems with top-quality songwriting and Saenz' plaintive vocals. His latest, "Studebaker," is the most electric and driving of his career - not to mention the best.

The song that inspired the title, Pocket Change quickly builds up into one of the loudest, most rocking songs Saenz has recorded. "Where's my Studebaker, I'm nobody's pocket change/to flip up in the air/when you can't decide just who to blame," he sings with an intensity that's backed up with some hot guitar solos. (While the liner notes frustratingly don't say which musician played on which song, guitarists Kenny Vaughan, Jedd Hughes and Buddy Hughen probably all deserve credit for helping to make "Studebaker" such a lively album.) The fiddle-filled Tall Grass has Saenz at his most playful and upbeat, and it suits him very well.

"Studebaker" has fewer quieter moments than his previous works, but Saenz added some noteworthy heartbreakers as well. Bottle Into Gold, which has already been a hit in Texas for co-writer Wade Bowen, and They Don't Make 'Em Like You Anymore are filled with regret. The closing Smiles at the Door adds some horns to the mix as the album ends with a cautiously optimistic note.

Despite the five-year span between albums, Saenz has been making his presence known in the Texas music scene as a songwriter, penning tunes for Bowen, Stoney LaRue and Shelly Colvin, among others. "Studebaker" serves as a welcome return to Saenz as a recording artist; hopefully the next album won't come with a five-year wait.