On November 13, 2020, Mitch Dembin released his second full length album Nothing Up My Sleeve. From the opening piano figure (is it a Fender Rhodes?), you just know that this album is going give late Boomers/early Gen-Xers something to smile about. Perhaps more than any time since the advent of rock & roll, musicians of a certain age are NOT stepping back from the scene, they’re declaring that they’re just getting started. And Nothing Up My Sleeve is a great example.
Dembin, who wrote and sings lead on all the songs, recorded the album with the Albert Lee Blues Band. The album features Lee on electric guitar and mandolin, John “JT” Thomas on piano, keyboards and accordion, Dave Chamberlain on bass, and Jason Smith’s drums and backup vocals. Mitch played acoustic 12-string on “Evermore” and “You.” And Janet Stucke sings a couple of choruses on the title track and backups. They recorded the album at Signature Sound in San Diego, CA. Produced by Jason Harrison Smith and engineered by Mike Harris.
Second albums from Boomers can go wrong in so many ways — from sappy oh-them-good-old-days nostalgia to “OK Boomer” rants about “kids today, let me tell ya.” Happily, Nothing Up My Sleeve avoids all that and reflects life pretty much the way it is for late Boomers/early Gen Xers. There’s wisdom, humor, sorrow, a little rage, and – if you’re really lucky – some good love. Dembin captures it all in a way that has you singing the choruses while nodding and thinking “yup, been there, I get it.”
The title song kicks off the album with an electric piano that feels like an old sweater. The kind you can’t help but put on when you find it at the back of the draw. And the opening line “It’s hard to watch the years zip past, each one quicker than the last,” and then the B3 floats in. Oh yeah. This song captures perfectly that feeling of being different than you were, but still fighting and better . . . in some ways. Dembin sums it up with the same mix of profundity and the humor that’s all over this album. “There’s more road behind than there is ahead, lots to do before I’m dead.”
Dead’s the New 80 blasts out of the gate like a Bad Company riff. It’s another getting older song that pokes some fun at the whole 60-is-the-new-40 meme. No, it’s not. We’re still rolling, but we’re not 40 anymore.
The third track shifts gear and enters the “Positively 4th Street” part of the album. “Evermore” has an old-timey vibe with an accordion and a sing-a-long feel that belays the biting lyrics about someone who’s done the singer wrong. “I tried to bend, but you drove me to break.” You’ve got a lot of nerve, indeed.
“It’ll Be Too Soon” continues the done-me-wrong theme with a catchy descending scale riff that has you clapping despite the serious, even depressing lyric. Unlike “Evermore”’s sense of mystery about what happened and on whose head the singer targets his wrath, it’s more obvious here. “You thrive on hate and misogyny. How that could carry the day, scares the crap outta me.” There’s only one dude at the other end of that.
“Almost Been There, Almost Done” shows off another strength of this collection of songs. Dembin’s self-deprecating blend of humor and cleverness leaves the listener smiling and singing the best phrases. “I’ll wait till to tomorrow to procrastinate” gets me every time. And the instrumentation here shows off Albert Lee’s band well. There’s an instrumental break of nearly a minute that gives the keys, drums, and guitar all a chance to shine.
“I Miss John Prine” is a loving homage to the recently deceased singer songwriter who like Dembin combined humor with insight or, as Dembin puts it “a twist.” “Some humans ain’t human,” he sings, taking the title of one of Prine’s masterworks (possibly an inspiration for “Evermore”) and spins it — “if you could see in their hearts. I know what’s in mine. I miss John Prine.” The band use the mandolin and organ perfectly to set the feel. And the Clay Pigeon serves as the perfect metaphor for the late baby-boomer affirmation of faith at the heart of this album. It all came too easily for Dylan, who isn’t quite a boomer anyway, and Springsteen just had too much fun with it all. Prine, he’s the one who takes it to the heart.
“Alright with Me” is a sub-two-minute checklist of the things that bug us, but ultimately are alright. “Mistakes grilling and beers chillin’.” Been there. Exactly. And a nice little lead from Lee too.
“Quixotic” is what happens when someone challenges Dembin to write a song that starts with a Q. The band adds a mystery movie noir feel to this love letter of a song to those who give our life meaning, even though we just can’t figure them out.
You is a more straight-up love song. Well, as straight up as Dembin gets. He places the relationship in a social context in a rare and delightful way. But as always on this album, with a twist. A self-referential lyric about how the singer struggled to write a real love song. And my favorite lyric – “We have our friends, their mostly yours. I know the truth, I sometimes can’t . . . escape my flaws.” It’s a beautiful tale of real love that we know is specific – the details are so vivid – and yet, it feels like he’s writing about us too.
“Martini Up” arose when Dembin and friend were relaxing with a couple of cocktails at a hotel bar when another conference member accused them of having “girlie drinks in a dainty glass.” You are what you drink, after all.
All too soon comes the finale. “No Future in History” is a piano rocker that devastates the idea of the good old days with a pledge to keep living for today. But not in an unreflective way. “Stories of the past are mystery. Written by those who claim victory. Better to focus on what you can see. There ain’t no future in history.” And the drum triplet breakdown into silence ends it all . . . perfectly.
You can learn more about Mitch Dembin and his performing band, Limited Jurisdiction on the band’s Facebook page, and Albert Lee and his band on their webpage. Buy the Nothing Up My Sleeve CD on Amazon.
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