REVIEW: Mark Henry Ham — Casper (LP)
When it comes to delivering contemporary country rock with a style all his own, Mark Henry Ham is the man for the job. His latest album Casper is being called a “diverse collection of songs [Ham] has written over the years, spanning rock, country, blues, and adult contemporary,” and it’s an eclectic mix of tunes you’ll be singing for days to say the very least! With the opening track “Oh Simone” acting as the album’s lead single, Casper is an album with a rip-roaring start that even those defensive about their love of country rock will find themselves defending.
Mark Henry Ham inhabits a rare cross-section of musicians, as he brings country inhibitions to life with a classic Roy Orbison flair; there’s a noticeable lack of Ham’s exact sound in the mainstream these days, and his melodic ear will guarantee his rise to the top, especially with how strong of an effort Casper turned out to be. “Oh Simone” opens strong with Mark’s signature vocals boldly going for a touch of yodel; there’s confidence on display that brings Alan Jackson to mind, but for a slightly more modern comparison, Orville Peck would be proud. “Dreamin Bout You Again” is a fun follow-up that further shows off the range and talent of Mark and his eclectic band and delivers a classic guitar riff that feels straight out of the ’80s in the best ways. “Casper,” the title track, is a little bit more earnest in its approach; it’s a love letter to the city of Casper, not the friendly ghost, and from the way Ham tenderly approaches the track, you can tell his affections for the city are true. “Life Is Like a Movie” puts piano front and center as rollicking piano licks pick the pace up; further complemented by saxophone, Ham describes how his life feels a little bit like a variety of movie genres.
“Green Light” is a smash-hit that features the heaviest production on the album so far. Incorporating heavy bass riffs and explosive drums on top of bluegrass guitars and blaring horns, a lot is going on here and it all lands. Putting “In the Quiet of the Night” directly afterward is a bold choice as it slams the brakes on the lightspeed pacing established by the album at this point, but the drastic change grabs listeners by the throat and allows the piano ballad to properly decimate them. “Long Way Home” picks things back up again with a melody that sounds indebted to Counting Crows; there’s an enviable ease and poppy affectation on this one, and Ham knows it: “Long Way Home” is one of the lead singles for Casper, and for good reason. “Whatever Happened To Katie” sees Ham going back into something more typical of the country genre, and it works, if not just a little bit paler as a follow-up to “Long Way Home.” “Just Like Before” and “Be By My Side” work as two excellent back-to-back ballads that build to the most cathartic moment on the album yet in the latter’s finale. Seeing Ham cut loose entirely has been ten songs in the making, and it’s inarguably a memorable point in Casper’s arc.
“You” is a classic harmonica-driven track that features more of Ham’s humble and heartfelt lyrics, and it smartly allows the album to have its cake and eat it, too, with a high point in energy before the album closer comes to finish things off. “I Wish I Could See Your Smile Once Again” is as heartbreaking as the title suggests, and it’s a beautiful note to end the album on — there’s bravado and stern presence in Ham’s vocal performance here, as listeners are given the idea that this song was not an easy one to record. There’s a great deal of unabashed showmanship/musicianship throughout Casper, and closing it out on such a gentle note is the most ambitious move of the entire LP. It works, of course, and will allow Casper to remain in listeners’ minds for a good while. Mark Henry Ham has a genre-bending classic on his hands here, and there’s something for everyone within it.