For a while now, I’ve been contemplating changing the admittedly strict rules for inclusion in my Year-End Top 10 List. The one that’s garnering the most scrutiny right now is the only-domestically-released-and-in-record-stores regulation, which, given my newly global audience, seems to have outlived its purpose. (Plus, nixing that would let me consider the new Levellers album, out September 24, provided it’s as good as I expect it will be.)
A couple of rules will stay the same, however, most notably the ones that prohibit live records or cover albums into the list. Simple reasoning, really: I like to reward albums that match composition with performance. The song is half the magic, and how it’s played and recorded is the other half. It’s a shame, then, when someone as gifted and list-worthy as Peter Mulvey takes himself out of the running by breaking both of the above rules at once.
Mulvey cut his teeth in the Boston subway system, playing virtually every day. Unlike most of the buskers, however, Mulvey was using his subway time as partially subsidized practice, and emerged several years later with the crucial ability to hook a listener quickly and hold his or her attention. He also became one hell of a guitar player and singer, and the difference is noticeable between his first album, Brother Rabbit Speaks (pre-subway), and his third, Rapture (after two years down there).
On stage, Mulvey is simply mesmerizing, and he soon proved that the studio was no threat to him either, producing two great follow-ups to the manic, impressive Rapture. Deep Blue showed a more sinister and atmospheric side of Mulvey, and The Trouble With Poets should have been a breakthrough, so completely did it capture his sound and songcraft.
Poets sounded like a destination point, a final arrival, and so it’s no surprise, really, that Mulvey’s gone back to his roots with his new one, Ten Thousand Mornings, just released on Signature Sound Records. It turns out he’s never forgotten the subway, or the thrill of playing and singing for complete strangers who haven’t paid to come listen to you. Mornings is a live album, recorded entirely at the Davis Square T-stop in Somerville, Mass., outside Boston, and in its atmosphere you can hear the bustle of the city and feel the chill of the air.
Mornings is also a covers album, as Mulvey takes a trip through 35 years of his favorite songs. (Actually, given the traditional nature of “Rain and Snow,” the range of years is likely much larger than that.) And like any passionate music fan, Mulvey has chosen songs off the beaten path, even from some of the more famous contributors here.
For example, the album opens with “Stranded in a Limousine,” which Paul Simon recorded for his Greatest Hits Etc. album in 1977. Mulvey performs it raw, with famous folkie Chris Smither providing the accompanying beat with a pair of shoes. (Really.) While many of the songs come from the folk tradition, and thus translate well to Mulvey’s spare acoustic renditions, many more hail from unlikely sources. For every Bob Dylan (“Mama, You Been On My Mind”) and Gillian Welch (“Caleb Meyer,” a definite highlight), there’s a Leo Kottke (“Running Up the Stairs”) or an Elvis Costello (“Oliver’s Army,” which seriously never sounded better).
There really isn’t any such thing as an obscure Beatles number, but Mulvey picks one (“For No One”) that isn’t among the first twenty or so to come to mind, and performs it as a duet with Schwang’s Anita Suhanin. He also lays bare the power of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” another unlikely choice, and really fleshes out Randy Newman’s overlooked “In Germany Before the War.” While Mulvey recommends the Be Good Tanyas version of “Rain and Snow,” I’m most familiar with the song thanks to the aforementioned Levellers, who recorded it on their 1997 album Mouth to Mouth. Mulvey adds new dimension to the tale.
Surprisingly, though, the most effective song here is by Dar Williams, whom I’ve often had trouble liking in the past. Mulvey finds the heart of “The Ocean,” singing and playing with the passion that makes him one of the best six-string storytellers working today. And then, at the emotional climax of the song, something happens that could only come about on a project like this one: a train rolls by. Mulvey somehow uses the din of the subway as an instrument, rising with it to finish off one of the best things he’s ever committed to tape.
Still and all, Ten Thousand Mornings is a bit of a place-keeper. It’s enjoyable, touching and often quite beautiful, but it’s still made up of other people’s songs, and half the reason I buy Peter Mulvey albums is to savor his words and music. In fact, for a limited time, Signature Sounds is making available the “other half” of Mornings, an eight-track EP called Five-Thirty A.M., and in listening to that, I discovered what’s missing from Mornings: more of Mulvey’s own songs.
It’s somewhat surprising that the EP, as a whole, works better than the album, but that’s likely because Mulvey sings his own songs better than anyone else’s. Included here are spare readings of songs from each of his last three albums, beginning with the lovely “Wings of the Ragman,” off of Poets. The title track to Rapture is well done, if not much different from the album version, but “Grace,” off of Deep Blue, is a wondrous thing. The album version was all beats and atmosphere, but here it’s just Mulvey’s guitar and voice, and the final effect is striking. It’s easily my favorite thing here.
Coming in second is Mulvey’s version of Radiohead’s “Airbag,” the most unlikely cover on either disc, and he does it straight, just guitar and voice. It’s further proof that a great song is a great song, and it doesn’t need studio trickery to hold its head high. The EP also features songs by two of Mulvey’s guest collaborators, the sweet-voiced Suhanin (who contributes “Sugar”) and bluegrass boy Sean Staples of the Resophonics (who wrote “Muddy Ground”). Cap it all off with an instrumental, Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” with cellist Kris Delmhorst, and you have a much more diverse and delightful offering.
But really, any chance to spend time with Mulvey is worth taking, and where else are you going to find a live record on which an amazing musician occasionally breaks stride to thank people for tossing quarters into his guitar case? Ten Thousand Mornings and Five-Thirty A.M. are unique and diverting discs that offer a glimpse at Mulvey’s breadth of talent.
There comes a point, however, in a musician’s journey where going back and playing the subways is just downright unfair to the other buskers. The light of day, the packed houses and the critical acclaim he deserves are awaiting him, and he’s too good to go unrecognized any longer. Mulvey has, literally and metaphorically, been underground too long.
You can help. Go to www.petermulvey.com and buy his stuff. It’s all worth your money.
Next week, Coldplay and Aimee Mann, and after that, I feel another big column coming on…
See you in line Tuesday morning.