Mark Karan, Walk Through The Fire (Quacktone Records, 2009)

It's June, and I've got a little stack of Bay Area-centric music CDs uploaded to my iTunes, ready for review. I've listened to three of the four so far. One I like, three I really like. Time for number five, and woo mama, saving the best for last.

I've got Mark Karan's about-to-be-released CD, Walk Through the Fire, playing at warp nine (this one's mix is happiest at warp nine through eleven, trust me), and the damned thing is killing me. Walk Through The Fire is a progression - not a linear one, but rather one full of curves and twists and odd angles - from a man who's done exactly what the title song says: walked through the fire, trusted himself to the hot coals.

He had no choice. In my Best of 2008 Green Man piece, I spoke about my old friend Michelle McFee's battle with cancer, and the benefit concert we put together for her. Mark Karan - who, among a long stellar list of credits in local music, has been lead guitar for Bob Weir and Ratdog for the past decade - played with every act. He had reason: Mark himself survived stage 4B throat cancer, with a lot of help from his wonderful wife Maile, and his superb doctor, who also happens to be Michelle's doctor.

With Walk Through The Fire, Karan manages something that's as rare as dragon droppings: the CD is passionate and detached at the same time. There's not an ounce of pathos: a line in the title song, a song which specifically references the cancer experience, sums up what I mean: I needed something to take me down a peg. Not exactly most peoples' view, on learning they have a lethal disease.

If there's no pathos, there's no "I saw God and now I am a Whole New Person, come to Jesus!" thing, either. Nor is there hubris with which to tempt the fates. Walk Through The Fire is a fantastic work by a brilliant songwriter and musician who went through something most people don't, and lived to make something very cool out of the experience.

The album leads off with Alex Call's gumbo-scented "Annie Don't Lie", more about "Oh I don't think so, sugar, you are not taking me for a ride!" than about fear of death or loss. Listening to a layering of bitchy guitar and interestingly structured vocal lines, I found myself grinning, and muttering "niiice!" under my breath.

So I was unprepared for the second track, which, for reasons of my own, left me a soggy tearful mess. "Leave A Light On"--at least in my ear--is a love song to someone gone, someone you know you can't have back, someone you probably shouldn't want back, but of course, shit, we're all human and the one that got away, for whatever reason, is always our own personal ghost, beyond forgiveness or exorcism. Even if the phrase "leave a light on" has no personal resonance for you, as it does for me, the aching distant regret, the poignant wish for something to hope for, may take your legs out from under you.

The CD has a nice mix of original and cover material. Randy Newman isn't always easy to find a new path through, but covering Newman's "Think It's Gonna Rain", Karan takes a side road that might be wistful, might be detached, or might be both. The gritty take on the Grateful Dead's "Easy Wind" takes a song I associate completely with someone else and makes it entirely his own. No small feat, since the original, off the classic Workingman's Dead, is iconic. The vicious, brilliantly tough version of Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain" is such a kick to the groin, I actually prefer it to the Stones' version. Pete Sears never lets me down, on either bass or keys, and the late Delaney Bramlett's monstrous co-vocals on this one just nail it down. The slide guitar work is mean, and taut; it reminds you that somewhere down at the crossroads, the devil wants his tamales and whiskey before he gives you back your hocussed guitar.

There are fun songs as well, exuberant in the realization that they're as alive as their creator. "Love Song" is bliss, Karan's own bliss, and that's all I need to say about that. "Rock Your Papa" is saucy and sharp and, I swear, has Lowell George's spirit running around the studio, looking for a spare mic. It's perfectly evocative of classic Little Feat at their best - no surprise, since Feat's stellar Bill Payne is providing the keyboards - but again, it's also pure Karan. I really don't know how he pulls this off, but he does, and it floors me.

Which takes me down the road to the song that planted barbs deepest into my psyche. "Time Will Tell" is the perfect place to stop and breathe along with the man mapping his way through this journey of an album. This is a love song that is somehow about inevitability, about acceptance, about understanding that, sometimes, you go where the road goes: crawling from the smoking wreck, all the best-laid plans, the Queen of Hearts is screaming: Honey, do you take this man...?

All music is, and should be, entirely personal to the listener. For me, "Time Will Tell", with its exquisite jazz-infused sensibilities and its never completely banked-down passion, is the perfect bookend to "Leave A Light On", my own starting gate on this perfect, fearless, barefoot stroll through one man's personal coals.

Deborah Grabien

Walk Through The Fire, Quacktone Records, 2009, will be available June 30th from Mark Karan's own Web site here. It's available in stores nationally, and online via iTunes, Amazon, Napster, and Rhapsody. All profits from the song "Walk Through The Fire" will be donated to the Oral Cancer Foundation.