Mark D. Conklin’s EP Starting Over opens with its title track and the lines “ I’ve spent half my life hanging on/and the other letting go”. You know immediately, coupled with the steady foot on the drum kit, the sinewy guitar and slide guitar, that this is going to be a winner. Nothing after this line disabuses you of that notion. He crafts a song cut from smart country rock cloth without ever nearing outright histrionics and each component of the composition compliments each other. It’s an eye opening beginning to the EP that bodes well for what will come next.
The EP’s longest track comes next with “Circus”. This is a much more “constructed” piece that begins in a low key manner before the band comes in for its refrain. The meditative mood of the opening has a near circular feel, like a waltz, and features only Conklin, accordion, and a simple acoustic guitar accompanying his vocal. The double tracked vocals that come after the first refrain are a nice touch. One gets a strong sense of complex metaphors working out through Conklin’s lyrics and they are so well written listeners can interpret them in a variety of ways. Despite the longer length of this track, you never think Conklin over extends himself with this performance.
The quiet atmosphere of “No Savior” provides an excellent forum for Conklin’s extensive harmony singing with a female backing singer. The juxtaposition of their voices gives this track a much different feel than many other tracks on this release. There’s subtle instrumentation in this song, but it is far from inhabiting the same band terrain of the other songs on this release. “When a Girl Gives Up” is a wrenching example of the classic country style replete with lonesome steel guitar that floats through the arrangement like a faraway crying voice. His depiction of when love dies will resonate with many and he engages the pathos of the moment rather than falling into regrettable bathos.
“Toy Soldiers” may be a slightly divisive track. Some people may not appreciate yet another song decrying the senseless slaughter of youth in war thinking it lacks creativity but many others will think otherwise. They will attach themselves to this powerful band performance, particularly highlighted by Conklin’s vocals and the drumming, because of its clear emotion. The finale “Before the Flood” is another song that will have its share of admirers. Conklin has a clear pining for nostalgia but shapes it in such a way that it has dramatic legitimacy. The lyrics are sharp and brimming with detail.
Another element that makes it a perfect ending is it is the only outright solo performance on the release. You can hear how close this to Conklin’s heart listening to his elegant yet rootsy acoustic guitar and the weathered texture of his voice. The pangs of regret and loss are real. It is a superb ending to what you should consider one of the best classic country releases in many years.