The second self-released effort from singer/songwriter Mark Rogers, Qualifiers, is a six-song EP with more depth than many albums twice as long. The Williamsburg, Virginia based artist surrounds himself with a cadre of talented accompanists who help realize these songs by serving their interests rather than attempting to corral some moments of instrumental glory for themselves. The subject matter is time-tested, certainly, but Rogers’ writes with such idiosyncratic flair his personality comes through with each performance and lights these songs with their own individualistic glow. Rogers benefits, as well, from a first class production job framing his compositions and contributors in the best possible sonic light. Qualifiers isn’t just one of the finest singer/songwriter releases of 2018, but it’s a strong candidate for one of the year’s most thoughtful releases in any style and bodes well for Mark Rogers’ artistic future.
There’s a strong acoustic guitar underlying the opener “No Bigger Fool” spiked with flavorful electric guitar licks and flares of organ flaming from the mix. The drumming and bass playing is solid and provides the song with a consistent pulse while Rogers’ relaxed vocals are nicely accented with backing vocals at the chorus and bridge. This is a winning, unassuming kick off to the album and a tasty guitar break in the song’s second half puts an exclamation point on everything. The title song “Qualifiers” dials down the tempo and takes a more deliberate, luxurious pace than listeners hear with the first song. The electric guitar has a nearly elegiac air without ever sounding overwrought.
The reflective mood continues with the EP’s third track “Imagining” and the melodic virtues, underlined by some spartan yet elegant piano, help carry this song straight to listeners’ hearts. It reflects the same focus present throughout Qualifiers and features brief but memorable instrumental breaks from guitar and piano, respectively, near the song’s conclusion. Anyone expecting gritty, bucket of blood blues with the EP’s fourth song “The Blues Are Passing By” will be a little disappointed, initially, but anyone who hangs with this song will likely find it’s a favorite on the release. There’s a light Caribbean flavor to the song’s percussion, but it’s never belabored, and the guitars and keys take on a more orchestral slant than they do in earlier performances.
The mandolin laced shuffle of “You Can Lead Me On” doubles down on its country-rock feel with colorful pedal steel guitar lines woven throughout the song. It’s the EP’s longest song, but it never feels stretched out and, instead, breezes past listeners with the same relaxed pacing we’ve heard from the first song on. Rogers knows what he wants these songs to accomplish and never rushes to achieve his effects. His closer for Qualifiers, “The World Changed Forever”, is some sentimental brooding on the tragic murder of John Lennon, but you’ll excuse his sentiment as the song ultimately says much more about Mark Rogers than it does John Lennon. It’s a straight folk song to end Qualifiers and closes it on an eloquent note.
-review by Jason Hillenburg