In rock fed on the blues, there's a long tradition of men telling their troubles to their guitars when all else has forsaken them. Such music bears its heart while maintaining a fierce independence and steely pride. And so it is with the songs delivered by Mississippi-based songwriter Charlie Mars on his fourth self-titled album, which is his major label debut. Revealing a greater subtlety and emotional range than on the more straight-ahead, countrified rock of his last album, 1999's "End of Romance," Mars draws feeling from his gentle drawl, but maintains a tough edge, like a less fragile Jeff Buckley. Album opener "Gather the Horses," which evokes the Civil War's lingering shadows while sounding a personal call to arms, rings with resonant beauty, as his voice soars over a rough guitar melody and stuttering beat accented with graceful piano. Mars has a knack for unfolding songs slowly and then nailing them with a simple yet sophisticated vocal hook, as on "Close to Home," a mid-tempo ballad with a lovely chorus, or "When the Sun Goes Down," which glides languorously along until he pours out his voice over a thick, grinding guitar and driving beat. Even songs that almost risk becoming maudlin, like the reedy "White Out," are propelled by a deft rock build. Mars reveals himself to be a songwriter and singer with a true voice that's at once passionate, unpretentious, and often gorgeous.
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