Tyler Mast’s In the Company of a Friend blends the right amount of pop flavor into a concoction long on performed poetry for a winning mix. It’s the latest album from the Chicago born singer/songwriter and continues in the same vein as his previous work. It isn’t retreading familiar territory, however, but instead viewing it from a different angle than before. This ability to dress longstanding themes in fresh garb is one of the hallmark qualities of any top-flight songwriter and Mast possesses it in abundance.
The intermittent soulful piano punctuating the beat opening “Ayla” is an inspired set-up. Worth the price of purchase for this track alone, if nothing else. Couplets such as “Pour me a rye whiskey or wine/To drown out these voices inside” are illustrative of the song’s overall mood as “Ayla” attempts to grapple with decades of regret and express it somehow within the confines of a song. Music like this is in the redemption business. You don’t write this unless you are trying to save yourself.
“In the Lupines” has a retro rock burn that flames brightest with the song’s chorus. The steady simmer of its verses, however, is more than enough to hold you close. Warm and romping keyboards are particularly essential to this song’s success, but there’s a lot to be said for the song’s vocals. Mast sounds like a rustic version of Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker and the ragged but right supporting vocals are fitting.
Shimmering acoustic guitar opens “Now That I Found Thee” before Mast’s customary piano joins the song. The performance focuses more on cumulative effects rather than trying to roll over listeners so, when it reaches its zenith, the payoff is sweeter. Many listeners will especially enjoy the massed backing vocals scattered throughout the cut. The delightfully titled “Here’s to the Fools Who Tried” proves he is a master of voices as his singing affects a slightly pinched nasal tone not as pronounced during earlier tracks.
The organ adds vivid flair to the earlier songs and this track is no different. Mast hits upon a creative arrangement for this song that synthesizes melody and rhythm in an ear-catching way. The song’s guitar sound is the final musical piece in the puzzle. “String of Horses” is another album high point and the piano riff’s slightly staggered melodicism evolves into some of In the Company of a Friend’s most lyrical passages.
The title song swings like true blue barroom jazz with a slight buoyant edge and the song’s brassy sax groan is like a secret singer in the mix scatting around the lead vocal. It ends Mast’s latest studio collection on an unsurprisingly reflective note, but the ride is over. We’ve toured the inner and outer terrain of Tyler Mast’s life since 2016’s Stereo Esteria and few will come away from the experience unaffected. Many will even hear the spark of greatness during In the Company of a Friend, so let’s hope we don’t have to wait years to once again feel its heat.