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: Dave McGraw & Mandy Fer – Seed of a Pine

Hi all!

Why did it take so long to come to my senses and discover Americana and Bluegrass? Now in my forties, with a childhood where my father and I would play old folk songs on guitars at home, you’d think there would be a natural progression from those days to an appreciation to the folk- and country-infused traditions of these musical styles. But until the last decade, I thought Americana was Country and I didn’t want to listen to that Country “twang”…

I’m older and wiser now, which is why I was thrilled when Mandy Fer contacted me and asked if I’d mind listening to her new album, a collaboration with Dave McGraw called Seed of a Pine. So I checked it out online and listened to a few tracks. I think before I was done listening to the first song I sent an e-mail back saying I’d love to listen to the rest of the album. And it didn’t disappoint.

The stripped down arrangements – minimal guitars, piano, fiddle and voices – works beautifully to share the feel of a particular track without over-engineering any song. Each tells a story that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as it does in much of the pop and R&B music played on radio stations nationwide. These songs manage to intertwine a deep passion between the notes of the harmonies composed by McGraw’s baritone and Fer’s soaring and sultry vocals. Accompanying the duo are acclaimed musicians Peter Mulvey, Po’Girl songstress Allison Russel, and Chicago’s JT Nero (of JT and the Clouds).

What’s funny is that I usually find it easy to pick three or four songs to focus on, but no matter how many times I listen to Seed of a Pine, it’s impossible for me to choose. The tracks run from more traditional folk with simple melodies (“Seed of a Pine”) to more Blues-influenced (“Serotiny (May Our Music)”) to the Spanish-infused (“Comin’ Down”) and many that defy categorization. But that’s part of the Americana tradition – weaving styles as suits the story.

“Waking the Dreamer” has to be one of my favorites. It reminds me a bit of some of the songs from The Swell Season (duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) on the Once soundtrack. There’s a rise and fall, and a hope about the lyrics “Waking the dreamer / for you for you…” amidst the steady drum beat and the pairing of electric and acoustic guitars.

Within the melody and hopeful words of “Western Sky” there are some echoes of Bruce Springsteen‘s “I’m on Fire.” A simple guitar strum pattern with the entwined voices of McGraw and Fer tell a story of love and support. “This time I’m really coming home.” You know that feeling when you know you’re going home to stay for a while? Or when you find the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with? “For you took this heart of mine and you placed it in your eyes / you gave me peace of mind and with it I’ll decide / that you will be the one when I lay my body down…” I’d be surprised if this didn’t become the wedding song for more than a few people in 2012.

And “Serotiny (May Our Music)” starts with a Blues beat that wormed its way into my head while talking about the landscape of the heart and memory. Though I’m not sure if the couple in the song are playing music to the gods as an offering or the offering is between the pair of them, but they want to be heard. As they play guitars in the field, “play for me your favorite song, pull me up into your sky / where the thunder speaks in crazy tongues / and the gods do not decide.” The melodies soar through this one, tugged along by the steady guitars.

I could talk about all of the songs on this album until the cows come home. Honestly this is one of those Jerry Maguire albums which “had me at hello.” If you’re a fan of modern folk and Americana, you can’t go wrong with Seed of a Pine. The album releases tomorrow – February 15, 2012 – so keep your ears open. For more information, check out the album website, plus Mandy Fer’s website and Dave McGraw’s website.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Bobby Long – A Winter Tale

Hey there…

When I was 24, I was still trying to figure out my life. How many of us can honestly say we knew what we were doing with the rest of our lives by that point? And yet, in this age of American Idol, we now see kids as young as fifteen entering the limelight without any clue of what’s to come.

So when I heard Bobby Long’s music, I was in shock and awe not only that A Winter Tale was his debut studio album, but that he had that much conviction behind his words at age 24. It turns out he’s one of the few young talented folks who actually had his act together at a young age (17). He started at open-mic nights in London as he went to London Metropolitan University studying music in film and writing a thesis on “The Social Impact of American Folk Music” and has been touring over the last couple of years building his fanbase.

Between his great guitar skills and poetic lyrics, Bobby was a rising star with a bright future. His fans already know that. But with his album about to be released, the rest of the world has no idea what’s coming. From the opening strains of “A Winter Tale” through “A Stranger Song,” he had me enthralled as he told his stories in song.

I was raised in a house where I heard a ton of folk music growing up, but even since then I haven’t heard much that comes close to Bobby’s style and sound. The mix of blues and folk influences that comes closest may be Peter Mulvey, who’s one of my favorites. But there’s more country-blues and rock in Bobby’s guitar arrangements that offers something unique. There’s a sadness to each of these tales sung with an emotional punch and a voice that holds much more experience than someone so young ought to have.

A Winter Tale pairs the young artist’s talents with some amazing folks backing him up. Nona Hendryx (LaBelle) offers background vocals on “Penance Fire Blues” and Icelandic singer Lay Low offers backing vocals on other tracks. Add to that the pedal steel guitar of B.J. Cole (who plays with Elton John and Sting), and others and you end up with a textured release that simply doesn’t sound like a debut album. This might as well have been Bobby’s third or fourth…

But let me get back to the songs themselves…

“Who Have You Been Loving” tells the tale of moving on from someone who’s wronged him with a message loud and clear – “If someone isn’t hurt, then it’s gonna be me / but the tears they taint your heart, you’re so happy that you’re free / if you’re no better now than you’ve ever been / you owe me an apology…” But he’s moving on – “Before the dusk falls to dark, I’ll have you banished from my mind / I just need a moment’s rest to make it mine…” With a steady blues beat in the background and an electric guitar offering a bit of harshness, the song doesn’t beat around the bush…

And then in “Sick Man Blues,” we’re presented with a very different sound. This time the singer speaks fondly of a woman who’s bad news… It’s a dichotomy of happy, upbeat finger picking and sad lyrics often found in folk music. “Your love carries the rhinestone of a plague, so bear in mind the lives that you could save / I’m bound to walk the darkness again…” It’s an old story told with a new voice. “My love it sits untainted to the rigours of your stare / there ain’t anybody like you and the fairness of your hair / it leaves me stranded…” Could he walk away? It’s hard to say.

But my favorite song on the album has to be “Penance Fire Blues,” with its rhythmic strumming and gospel blues feel as it tells tales of a man suffering in a darkness of his own making. This might as well be about world politics as much as love. “You back down a hallway / to flourish the darkness / and you fool yourself / You did it all for her / and him, and her…” The truths we all cling to fade away in the end. What do reasons matter when compared with the deeds themselves?

How can someone so young have such insights into the world? Like all of us, Bobby Long is a product of his times – but damn if he doesn’t have an amazing way of expressing himself. If this is one of the new sounds of modern folk, I’ll be listening until they put me in the ground.

Looking for a fresh voice? Check out Bobby Long’s A Winter Tale today. Check out his website at BobbyLong.info for more about the album and his touring schedule to see if he’s in your neck of the woods!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great albums from Barnes & Noble:

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