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: Vitamin String Quartet – Per_Versions

Hey there…

Just a few months ago, I’d never really considered that a string quartet might be able to play rock music. After hearing Break of Reality’s album Spectrum of the Sky, that changed. So when I heard of a different string group playing rock music, I knew I had to take a listen. The Vitamin String Quartet did not disappoint me.

Per_Versions takes songs from a variety of groups, including Spoon, The New Pornographers, Tom Waits, and others, then transforms the original compositions into covers as only a group of classically-trained string players could do. What you end up with is music that in most cases transcends the original artists to show that melody does exist where you might not have heard it in the original recording.

The Vitamin String Quartet (or VSQ for short) is a Los Angeles-based group of musicians that have released quite a large series of albums paying tribute to classic rock and roll acts, movie soundtracks, and more. Per_Versions continues the trend, covering songs from 12 different bands and three original compositions by the group.

Unlike Break of Reality, VSQ covers other bands, from the past and present. I have to admit that I was shocked to hear some of these songs played by strings, since most of them have been played on the radio in their original, sometimes overengineered or screaming guitar states. But when you strip away the electronics, distortion, and rock guitars, you end up with melody, musical themes, and hidden rhythms that allow those elements to shine.

Of all the tracks on the album, I have to say that two were my favorites. “The Way We Get By“, originally done by Spoon, really moves along from the quartet. Something about the groove really got into my head as it bobbed along with the back-beats of the bass behind the sliding bows of the higher strings. And “Sour Times“, originally done by Portishead, also has a different texture from the rest of the songs on the CD. It combines jazz sensibilities with the feel of a Fiona Apple song.

In addition to the 12 covers from other groups, there are three original compositions from members of VSQ. Though I appreciate the musical chops of this great array of artists, I found these songs a bit weird for my taste. The only thing I can compare them to is avant garde jazz compositions, which I often have the same reaction to. I’m sure they’re brilliant pieces, but they struck me as repetitive and containing odd chord progressions.

But beyond the three original tracks, I thought the rest of the album was fantastic. VSQ’s experiments in rock and pop covers proves to me without a doubt that classic training can bring out the music from the most unlikely sources. Where before the voices and rock guitars would mask such beautiful melodies, VSQ manages to uncover the secrets within the original works that we might not ever hear otherwise.

Per_Versions is but one of many albums from the Vitamin String Quartet. If you like classical or orchestral music, but prefer rock or pop, this just might be the group for you. For more of their offerings, be sure to check out Vitamin Records. I know I’ll be checking out more of their work!

Pick up a copy of Per_Versions at your favorite online or brick-and-mortar retailer and keep an eye out for any live dates that might come your direction!

–Fitz

p.s. Click here to pick up some great Vitamin String Quartet music from Amazon:

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