I’ve always believed it signals a note of confidence when a musical artist begins a release with the title song. Mark Conklin’s “Starting Over” has an opening line many songwriters would open a vein for and only gets better from there. He’s surrounded himself with a first class crew of supporting musicians who are keyed in to his creative vision. They make no attempt to do anything other than help him flesh out the fine songwriting defining the release. The title song of any given studio effort is, typically, the critical moment when everything comes together and this is no exception.

The slide guitar, drumming, and first class roduction weave together to strike an indelible note.  The mid-tempo pace of the track is more forceful than you might expect and Conklin’s pedigree as someone well acquainted with the sound of country rock is apparent, but it is never heavy-handed. He shows his versatility early by changing things up with the second track “Circus”. In some ways, I think this track is probably the best example of Conklin’s songwriting prowess included on Starting Over because the song benefits from vivid construction moving it from a low key opening into further robust verses and a refrain that sweeps listeners away. It’s arguably the EP’s most fully realized track.

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“No Savior” is a bit of a comedown, but not by much. The thing that captures my attention most during this performance is the inclusion of some of the best harmony vocals I’ve heard in recent memory. The song is laid out with a careful musical vision without ever sounding too restrained and the lyrics leave much open to interpretation without ever descending into vague meanderings. “When a Girl Gives Up”, however, takes Starting Over to new heights and should be on every traditional country music’s list of first rate ballads. You can tell Conklin is steeped in the history of this style. He nails every aspect of the classical presentation from the weeping steel guitar, the sad vocal, and patient musical development. The lyrics are all his own however – there’s a whiff of sophistication in his writing illustrating how far ahead he takes the style without abandoning its core principles.

“Toy Soldiers” may be a hard sell for some listeners. It certainly has a social conscience as Conklin inveighs against the storied tradition of sending young men off to war and the cost it incurs, but many listeners come to releases like this wanting to flee the horrors of modern life rather than being confronted with them. Conklin likely wouldn’t care and shouldn’t. This is an artist writing and performing to satisfy his own heart and the musical strength of this song validates its writing and recording. “Before the Flood” ends the EP with a similar track in the respect that it has a strong social conscience, but it has a different slant. It feels much more personal lyrically than “Toy Soldiers” and the solo acoustic quality of the track reinforces that. It’s a fitting end to a release that is born from the heart and experiences of a man who, I am sure, values every moment he spent crafting this fine EP.

Sebastian Cole