Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 96° Clear
A&E >  Entertainment

Local Music Spotlight: Mark Houston’s stellar debut album ‘The Coast’ is ‘like a storybook’

Aug. 19, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 19, 2021 at 3:01 p.m.

By Julien A. Luebbers For The Spokesman-Review

Surveying today’s most popular music, one notes that first-person confessional lyrics are by far the most common. From hip-hop and rock to indie, the audience and artist most often assume that the narrative voice of the song is the artist singing it.

There are counterexamples to this trend, writers who favor the old ways: songs that upon their musical bones carry narrative stories and tales, whether they be a contemporary love song or mourning of a sailor’s widow. Mark Houston is one such writer, and his debut album, “The Coast,” which was released just over a month ago, demonstrates it track after track.

“Thematically, a lot of the songs are written from a storyteller’s perspective,” Houston said. “Each song is kind of a story about a fictional character. The album’s almost like a storybook.”

And that is certainly the impression one gets while listening to “The Coast,” which in 11 tracks includes inspiring pick-me-up songs, adventuresome narratives and more.

All the songs exude the same imagination: the stories carefully crafted for your interpretation. There may be story in the lyrics, but the real story is what you make in your mind.

“I try to keep it open, so that people can kind of make their own meaning out of it,” Houston said.

“I hope that when people listen to it, they’re able to kind of let their imagination go.” Take the lines from “A Lonesome Sailor’s Song,” a folksy track about a sailor’s longing for his dead lover: “Well I turned my head / Only for a moment / And the waves, they threw you overboard.”

The lines are like an outline, or sketch, but with help from the music, the listener fills them in with lavish detail. “A Lonesome Sailor’s Song” is also a good example of the album’s greatest musical strength.

Though Houston works primarily with guitar and vocals, he has brought in many other parts to fill out the album’s sound. In “Sailor’s Song,” the violin adds a time-worn tone, which contrasts heavily with the driving drums.

Houston has been a fixture of the local scene since he relocated to Spokane for college in the early 20-teens. But after years of sitting on his pile of songs, he finally decided that it was time to head into the studio and get himself a record. He brought his home-recorded guitar and vocal tracks to local studio Amplified Wax, and with the help of James Hill, turned those rough cuts into the polished result that is “The Coast.”

“When I decided I wanted to record it, I’d had so many ideas, there was just a backlog,” Houston said.

The process of narrowing down his life of songwriting into one record meant an eclectic set of sounds.

“I feel like you can hear the variance in the songs,” he said.

While the album is rooted in the steadily rocking acoustic guitar and finger-style folk, it comes to life with the range – in both composition and sonics – that Houston strives for.

“The Watcher,” for example, another vividly narrative piece, opens softly but by the end has developed a real rock feel, pushing the drums, guitar and swaying vocals to a fine energetic point. But the track retains its character and sound through the transformation. The expansions in instrumentation remain rooted in the acoustic guitar and vocals.

“I like to call it organic soundscapes mixed with thoughtful storytelling,” Houston said of his work.

With “The Watcher,” that “organic” sound is on full display. It feels as though the songs just came to be. They reveal a facile elegance that does not let on the laborious writing and technical work that went into their creation.

With “The Coast” out on all streaming platforms, Houston plans to play shows throughout the Northwest this fall, including in Spokane. The details aren’t set yet, but “it’s gonna be five of us live. So it still gives us lots of room to play with all the tracks.”

It also makes more of a dynamic onstage performance. Stream “The Coast” now wherever you stream music, and follow @MarkCHouston on Instagram for updates.

Julien A. Luebbers can be reached at julien.luebbers@gmail.com.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter

Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.