Music Review: Peter Mulvey – The Good Stuff

Hey there…

What is it about Peter Mulvey’s voice? Some gravelly, deep quality that makes him not only persuasive and honest but almost addictive? Something about the way he composes his arrangements or writes his lyrics? The serious fun it seems he has playing every song? I don’t honestly know.

But every time Mulvey releases an album, I have to listen. Ever since Notes from Elsewhere, I have been a fan. Notes is one of those albums that rises to the top of my collection more often than I might want to admit and several tracks from Letters From a Flying Machine are also working their way up – especially the honesty of some of the letters he reads, like “Vlad the Astrophysicist”!

So what is his latest album like? The Good Stuff takes a bunch of songs I have never heard before (and a few I have) and puts a Mulvey spin on them in that magical way only he can. Though I have to admit the first couple of times I listened to the album in the car I wasn’t sure I liked it. It might just be the horrible speakers in the car however, since I listened to it about three times on my iPad on a plane a couple of weeks ago and it grew on me each time.

Why has it grown on me? This CD collects the work of a disparate group of songwriters and unifies it with Peter’s voice… Songwriters such as Willie Nelson (“Are You Sure?”), Chris Smithers (“Time to Spend”), Tom Waits (“Green Grass”), Duke Ellington (“Mood Indigo”), Thelonious Monk (“Ruby My dear”) and others are represented. Recorded over three days in Connecticut, the album features Mulvey with upright bassist Paul Kochanski, violinist Randy Sabien, guitarist David Goodrich, and drummer Jason Smith, with guest vocalist Kris Delmhorst on “Are You Sure?” Each track offers a simple, heartfelt rendition of a classic.

Tracks like “Everybody Knows” groove along telling stories about infidelity and other injustices… “Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful / give a night or two / Everybody knows you’ve been discreet / but there were so many people you just had to meet / without your clothes…” Written by Leonard Cohen, this is a song about the wrongs in the world that everyone accepts and just lives with. Though not cheery, Mulvey lends it a certain gravitas with a simple arrangement and simple delivery.

One of my favorites on the album has to be “Are You Sure?” with the duet between Mulvey and Delmhorst. It reminds me of a different era of music-making. Simple harmonies, well sung, without the over-engineered instrumentals – just a couple of guitars, a snare, and a violin. There’s almost a “drunk” sound to the violin the longer the song goes along, as the singers try to convince a barfly it’s time to leave the bar. Again, the honesty comes through not just in the lyrics but in the delivery.

But Mulvey’s rendition of “Mood Indigo” takes the cake. Such a classic big band standard that’s been done since the 1930s by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Louie Armstrong, Joe Jackson, Nat “King” Cole, and others… Well, now we can add Peter Mulvey to the list. I’ve never heard this jazzy tune done with simple guitar arrangements and violin and Pete just lays it down smooth. This is the blues, people. “Always get that mood indigo / since my baby said goodbye / in the evenin’ when lights are low / I’m so lonesome I could cry…” Sing it brother.

That’s just a taste of the fourteen tracks on this CD. Now, if you’re expecting Mulvey originals, The Good Stuff is probably not the CD for you. But if you want to hear a master give interpretations of standard songs of the last century, I’d encourage you to give it a listen. As always, Pete’s on top of his game and this CD will work its way to the top of my collection soon, I’m sure.

For more about Peter Mulvey, be sure to check out his home page for other albums, news, and his touring schedule.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

Music Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Hi all!

Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with Bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genre – from A Capella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the pre-eminent violinists of the last century Itzhak Perlman – not to mention working with orchestras around the world and helping out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.

And now he can add a collaboration with Bluegrass artists Chris Thile (mandolin – member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album Chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:

Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in Bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.

What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs – but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely – “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning, and yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to just that – and then to have it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile… I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.

“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass merged with Ma’s cello drives this song from the bottom up. And it’s one of those grooves that rises and falls and I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.

So just what is a “goat rodeo” you may ask… Mr. Ma puts it like this – “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.com here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Fay Wolf – Spiders

Many of the new artists I hear, I hear first in the soundtrack for a television show. For example, I first heard Eva Cassidy‘s cover of Cyndi Lauper‘s “Time After Time” on an episode of Smallville. And I heard Alexi Murdoch‘s “Breathe” for the first time in an early episode of Stargate Universe. And I first heard Fay Wolf, though I didn’t know it at the time, on an early episode of Covert Affairs.

So when I started listening to Fay’s new album Spiders, I knew I’d heard the voice before but it took me a while to figure out where. But I shouldn’t have been surprised that I first heard her music on TV, as her songwriting and composition style effortlessly combines storytelling and drama in much the same way as some of my favorite shows. Though her style is all her own, my ear keeps comparing her to artists as diverse as Florence + The Machine and Tori Amos, who also tell stories beneath the melodies.

Since listening to the music of Spiders, I’ve discovered that her songs have also been featured on episodes of Gray’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, and Pretty Little Liars. Beyond that, she is a classically-trained actress who has worked in theater, film and television with appearances on Law & Order, Numb3rs, Bones, Ghost Whisperer, and NCIS: Los Angeles. And if the music and acting wasn’t enough to keep her busy enough, she’s also a professional organizer with her own company “New Order,” named after the band.

Spiders is full of emotional honesty but also includes a bit of wit and humor within her lyrics. A word of advice however, she also includes a bit of explicit language in those lyrics, so though her music is amazing it might be best for a more mature audience.

The album starts with two of my favorite songs – “The Thread of the Thing” and “The Passing” – which set things off on the right foot.

“The Thread of the Thing” employs the dreamy feel of someone trying to explain how they feel. The lyrics are stream of consciousness but hit me like those conversations between lovers as they fall asleep… “And the stories of kings and the needle and the thread of the thing… in a little while I see that I love the way you came on…” Between the steady percussion like a heartbeat, the simple chording, and the atmospheric effects, it really got my attention quickly.

“The Passing” on the other hand manages to sound very different than “The Thread of the Thing,” featuring Fay’s voice and piano skills. Again, it’s like a dreamy conversation – “See here’s the thing / I love being in motion / and wrapped around you… I can hear you / and I can see the time / the time passing / the time passing by…” It’s as though her voice tells the story as her fingers dance across the keys.

In the middle of the album, “Pull” just seems to ring true again about… you guessed it. Love. This time it’s a bit more outwardly happy in the melody. “But y’figured out that the least you could understand / your heart is open to someone else’s hand…” Love sometimes manages to pull the breath from us, just like falling down in the snow. But the almost calliope-sounding keys gives this song a strong feel of fun while keeping that atmospheric piano behind the scenes.

But “In the Way” is the opposite to the languid feel of “The Thread of the Thing” with a melody that is at once sad, but honest. “How did we fall in love in a week / and how do we get away / how do we see if the cracks in the plan / are the reasons that we play the game…” Again, it’s simply Fay and a piano telling an honest story about romance. Sometimes things don’t work out and “if it’s all not fair, then why are you here.” Sometimes we have to look deeper than the fun we’re having to see that something isn’t good.

Spiders manages to express the complexities of love without seeming trite. I think that’s her gift, telling stories of love when it goes right and when it falls apart. Check it out at your favorite retailer. And for details about Fay, be sure to drop by her website FayWolfMusic.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

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