To make “Cloud or Mountain,” his first solo album, Mike Semrad compiled the story songs he’d written that didn’t fit into the honky-tonk stylings of his band, the Bottle Tops.
Then he put those songs in a folk-roots setting, anchored by acoustic guitar and filled with mandolin, pedal steel, some electric guitar and harmonica -- a perfect musical setting for him to spin out the stories in his high, reedy narrative voice.
The centerpiece, and best story on the record, is “The Ballad of Leslie Arnold,” a based-on-the-true-story tale that recounts the life of Arnold, an Omaha teenager who killed his parents at age 16, escaped from Nebraska State Penitentiary a decade later and disappeared. It speculates that Arnold might turn himself in decades later in order to reunite with his brother.
Other notable stories on the 10-song disc are: “What If Baby,” a romance that name drops Interstate 80 and the Sandhills; the gentle, swinging title cut about a musician’s life; and “Billy Bob,” a tale of murderous revenge.
With the notable exception of the mandolin-driven, hook-filled “I Don’t Mind This Time,” “Cloud or Mountain" is a pretty laid-back collection. There’s nothing at all wrong with that when the songs are well done and worth multiple visits.
Semrad will release “Cloud or Mountain” Saturday at the Great River Ramble at the Pla Mor Ballroom. Semrad will perform with his band, the River Hawks, at the fundraising show. Also on the bill are Andrea von Kampen, Matt Cox, Evan Bartels, Jack Hotel and Will Hutchinson. Grade: B+