Peter Mulvey,
The Trouble With Poets
(Signature Sounds, 2000)

In a recent radio interview, singer/songwriter and monster guitarist Peter Mulvey said that he calls himself just a singer these days, and his singing on this wonderful CD is as fine as anything he has done. His phrasing is typically flawless, his voice can be soft as velvet, and you'll never hear him hit a wrong note. What sets Mulvey apart though -- and also makes him a stellar interpreter of others' songs -- is his depth and versatility; he can be expansive, warm, knowing, playful and almost frighteningly intense by turns.

But before the carefully-crafted performance of these songs came the writing, and this record highlights the remarkable work that Peter and David "Goody" Goodrich (co-writers on nine of the eleven tracks) have been doing in the last year or two. The title track claims that "the trouble with poets is they talk too much" and that "they see poetry everywhere." Mulvey has long since proven himself a poet, and while I'd never accuse him of the former charge, there's no question that he's guilty of the latter. There is a lot to listen to, and a lot to ponder in these songs.

Mulvey's gift for words comes out strongly in "Words Too Small to Say," which alludes to the empty space created by the decline of traditional faith. The striking description of what has replaced old beliefs:

"A bottle of pills
for twenty-five bucks a week
and all that you seek
and all that is hunting you down
recedes to the sound of a dull roar
but you are up off the floor
and not so unsteady
ready? Swallow the first one"

The moodiness of the song is accentuated by the unusual mix on the chorus, as an edgy voice just breaks through, nearly buried beneath warm, smooth, measured vocals. It calls to mind reality trying to come through some level haze of medication.

Despite Mulvey's penchant for dwelling on the gloomy aspects of life, listeners are sure to appreciate the variety on this record. There is variety in tempo and feeling, variety in the singing and in instrumentation. Some songs rely on Peter's acoustic guitar while some have the full band sound found on his earlier releases on the Eastern Front label. Goodrich, an exceptional instrumentalist who also produced, contributes enormously to the music on everything from mandolin to slide guitar. The great deal of touring they've done as a duo, together with their writing partnership, has strengthened and solidified this propitious musical pairing.

That strength is abundantly clear in every song, including "Check Me Out," a funky piece that Mulvey has introduced as a song written from the perspective of a young girl who can fly. I don't know who he's channeling, but it works.

Peter is also joined on this CD by Lou Ulrich on bass, Mike Piehl on drums, and Chris Smither and Jennifer Kimball taking some turns on backing vocals. Kimball is particularly effective on the gorgeous "Every Word Except Goodbye." I'm less certain of the addition of Smither to "All the Way Home," but I'm growing to like it. I suspect that Smither, with his deep, craggy, seen-it-all-before voice, may be the only person who can bring out an almost boyish quality in Mulvey's own singing.

Far removed from any boyish persona, "Bright Idea" presents a very different Peter, whose frequent audible breaths contribute to the feel of a man on the edge -- or maybe just over it -- in this track that he has referred to as his "Paranoid X-Files Song."

Track six on this CD is listed as "Intermission: You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams," and indeed, Mulvey seems to be giving us a break from serious matters with this light piece. It's an old Fats Waller tune, writing credited to Goodhart, Hoffman and Kurtz. While it's not one of my favorites, the cheerful, simple song does come as a rather welcome break halfway though the record, and Goody's mandolin accompaniment is a real treat.

In Mulvey's own songs the struggles of life can never be quite forgotten, and "Tender Blindspot," the only song for which he takes sole writing credit, is no exception. Also recorded on his live album, Glencree, the song is worthy of this studio effort. Here Mulvey shows an uncommon tenderness and hope, while still acknowledging the pain that is inevitably part of life:

"And it's just your tender blindspot
not the ruination of your soul
as long as trees are skying
tears are weeping seas to make us whole
and you wonder why you're aching
why you should go on you just don't know
it's just your tender blindspot
from that tender blindspot you must grow."

At 30, Mulvey seems young to have made such peace with this; there are moments when his surprising maturity lends great richness to his work as a songwriter.

"Home," the final track on this album, is one that has me reaching for the repeat button -- and singing the refrain incessantly throughout the day. Mostly acoustic, this is a lovely, gentle song with welcome warmth:

"Come on inside / shake off the cold
all right / ah, steady now / steady
now / steady now / welcome home."

One imagines a travel-weary singer-songwriter making his way home through the northern winter. Welcome home indeed.

[ by R.B. Hoffman ]

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