Music Review: Peter Mulvey – Letters from a Flying Machine

Hi there…

In January 2008, I discovered Peter Mulvey. The song “Better Way to Go” played on KBCO one day as I was driving in Denver and it led me to Mulvey’s album Notes from Elsewhere. After picking up the album, it’s consistently been at the top of quite a few of my playlists. His honest voice, amazing guitar work, and brilliant lyrics keep me coming back time and time again.

So when I heard he had a new album (his twelfth) coming out, I knew I had to pick it up. Letters from a Flying Machine isn’t quite what I expected, and yet more than I might have hoped. This isn’t a normal album full of song after song, but is instead almost a journey through time and space where Mulvey finds ways to communicate with his nieces and nephews during his travels. The “Flying Machines” of course are airplanes and there are four of the many letters Peter has written to his family on his many travels. And each letter is a glimpse into his life, his relationships with his family, and his observations on the world.

Though I love the music on this album, I have to take some time to chat about the letters. Writing a letter is a very personal process and one that may be lost on today’s youth. E-mail, Twitter, instant messaging, and text messaging all tend towards more conversational bits shared between the sender and the receiver. Those mediums can be personal, but we no longer have the delays between sending and receiving personal correspondence that made receiving a letter so much more personal and exciting. For Peter to share these intimate collections of thoughts passed from himself to his nieces and nephews is a wonderful way to share more of himself with his fans and forever immortalize the letters for his family.

The tracks of Letters aren’t meant to be listened to a bit at a time out of order. These tracks are arranged carefully to illustrate how when we are gone, some of our legacy is left behind. But what is that legacy? What form does it take? This is what Mulvey delves into through his letters and songs.

Of the tracks on the album, his letters “Mailman” and “Vlad the Astrophysicist” resonated with me. Explaining DNA to a 6-year-old and the fact that all living things come to an end… Been there, done that. But I have not yet had the conversation about life in the universe with my kids. It’s coming. My eldest has those deep Carl Sagan moments now and then, so it can’t be too far off. These stories from Peter should resonate with any of us who have our own kids or know people who do.

And the music is always amazing. “Shoulderbirds (You Know me)” and “On a Wing and a Prayer” tell stories with harmonies and melodies interwoven with lyrics that make you stop and think.

“Shoulderbirds (You Know Me)” introduces us to the little “Shoulderbirds” who make you want to sing and brighten your day. Sometimes we’re swept away by the woes of the world and we need little reminders that everything will be ok. We all know those people who can brighten any day and remind us what’s important. This is Peter’s memorial to those little “Shoulderbirds” in our lives.

And in “On a Wing and a Prayer” we hear about the people living in the moment day to day. “I know for you and me, there’s no guarantee…” as they go through the world hoping for the best, a song in their hearts. I’m unfortunately not one of these folks, but my wife is and we’ve gone on many an adventure on the spur of the moment, so I can appreciate the sentiment.

The last track on the album is Mulvey singing the classic “Love Is Here to Stay“, accompanied only by his guitar with the gentle roar of a traveling plane in the background. One of my favorite songs, it’s great to hear Peter’s take on the immortality of love as he covers the last song George and Ira Gershwin‘s ever wrote. Hard to top Gershwin.

Letters from a Flying Machine is another in a long line of albums from Peter Mulvey that deserves more than one listen. If you like great guitar, folk/rock sensibilities, and simply wonderful music, be sure to pick it up today at your favorite online or brick-and-mortar retailer!


p.s. Be sure to pick up some of Peter Mulvey’s albums at Amazon below:

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Music Review: Matt Duke – Acoustic Underground EP

Hi all…

Wow. When I started listening to Matt Duke’s latest album – Acoustic Underground EP – I was struck by the simple, powerful pick and strum of Duke’s acoustic guitar as he lays down the mesmerizing lick that drives the melody of “Kingdom Underground.” And then he begins to sing, telling the story of a fallen angel conversing with Heaven. Who knew John Milton‘s Paradise Lost would make such an amazing tune? And how can any 24-year old have the perspective to write such compelling lyrics?

But don’t let the religious theme of “Kingdom Underground” throw you. Duke finds inspiration in myriad places as you wind through the six songs on the EP. These tracks were largely inspired by his exposure to various literary works. And though he dropped out of college after “15 minutes” as he puts it, he has a grasp of storytelling in literature that evades many a lit student.

Born in South Jersey, 24-year old Matt Duke currently lives in Philadelphia and works on music that defies categorization. “When I first started out, I didn’t know what style I was,” says Duke. “I still don’t and probably never will.” This is great for those of us looking for new artists with a unique voice. I want him to continue to experiment and grow as an artist. And if this EP is any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem.

“The Father, the Son, and the Harlot’s Ghost” changes the pace, telling the story of someone questioning their faith as we all do from time to time. Again, Duke loosely bases the lyrics on the book Trinity by Leon Uris. Spiritual unrest is something we all go through and this conversation resonates with that truth. His honest, trembling vocals add to that truth by giving the song emotional weight.

When we get to “Walk it Off,” we’re no longer talking about faith. This is a fight between lovers told from the perspective from two pissed off people. Though the song slows down the original version on Duke’s Kingdom Underground album, once again Duke manages to inject a raw emotional reality in this conversation. The love is there beneath the rage held close and they do their best to walk it off so they won’t hurt each other further…

In “Ash Like Snow,” you get to hear more of Duke’s gift for literary metaphor and simile. How do you deal with the fading of the place you’re from? You can fight progress, whether positive or negative, but eventually change takes all things. It’s the order of the universe and a literary theme of Ayn Rand‘s We the Living, on which he based this song. As a lament for simpler and better times, now lost to time, Duke compares the ash of falling buildings to falling snow. I couldn’t help but think of 9/11 and the images of the dust falling on the streets of New York City.

Duke has a gift for taking infinitely relatable topics, maybe even uncomfortable ones, and making them emotionally accessible through his simple and effective guitar melodies, an expressive voice, and his lyrics. Each layer builds on the next, creating composites that tell stories for all to hear.

Each time I listen to “Kingdom Underground,” I hear new things in the layers and his expression. It’s one I’ll be listening to for quite a while. I hope to hear more of Matt Duke’s acoustic work in the years to come. While we wait, be sure to check out Duke’s Kingdom Underground EP and go on a musical, lyrical journey. It’s worth a listen or ten. Look for it at your favorite online or brick-and-mortar retailer.


p.s. Support Matt Duke. Pick up his music at Amazon!

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Music Review: Mayfly EP by Jason Karaban

Hi all!

Though I’d not heard of Jason Karaban before, the three songs on Mayfly resonated with me. Inspired by images of the Civil War, these are haunting, sad songs tinged with regret and loss stripped down to a bare few instruments and melodies.

Karaban was accompanied by Chris Joyner on piano (“No Casualties”) and Lucy Schwartz on backing vocals (“Sullivan Ballou” and “No Casualties”), but “A Far Better Place” is Karaban going solo. But Karaban seems to surround himself with diverse talent frequently. Whether with Joyner or Schwartz, Karaban’s voice has a soft, almost ethereal quality that lends credence to the heady topics of these songs.

This is Karaban’s fourth release, starting with Doomed to Make Choices in 2005, Leftovers in 2006, and then Sobriety Kills in early 2009. On his albums he’s worked with a veritable “who’s who” of guest musicians such as Joyner and Schwartz. Guests have included Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), David Immerglück (Counting Crows), Ani DiFranco, Ivan Neville (Rolling Stones, Neville Brothers), Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket), and many more.

The power of the simple songs of Mayfly is palpable not only in the melodies and performances, but the lyrics. It’s hard to argue with “The seeds of old were strewn across the field and blew away” in “Sullivan Ballou”. The images evoked are those of the bloody remains of battles fought those many years ago. It’s rare to find an artist willing to take a chance on such a sad topic.

It continues with “No Casualties” and Joyner’s stripped down piano playing and someone playing a soft trumpet. Again, not cheerful lyrics, but evocative ones speaking of having no casualties during a retreat, and later losing people as “they drop like flies” during a battle. War is hell and the comeraderie between soldiers fighting on the front lines wavers between cheer and despair from one encounter to the next.

And finally in “A Far Better Place” you hear in the background the echoes of men in war as once again, the despair is tinged with cheer of fallen brothers. The fallen head off to a far better place after fighting – “no disgrace from the shame we do” – again, calling back to the horrific violence of the Civil War where brother fought brother and horrible acts done in the name if one cause or another.

I believe Mayfly is meant to make us consider the costs of war, whether today or yesterday. But beyond that, it’s significant to find an artist expressing his visions and challenge our preconceptions of the purpose of music. In this case, Karaban shows a contemplative, almost cathartic understanding of a complex topic.

If you’re interested in challenging yourself emotionally through music, be sure to check out Mayfly. I know his songs will haunt me for a while.


p.s. Check out Mayfly and some of Jason Karaban’s other CDs, including Sobriety Kills, Doomed to Make Choices, and Leftovers at Amazon.

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