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Shawn Mullens: My Stupid Heart
by George Graham
(Sugar Hill Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/21/2015)
I often remark on the proliferation of singer-songwriters on the contemporary music scene. Though the musical format is simple to begin with, the variations are almost endless, in terms of style and approach, instrumentation and so on. With so many practitioners of the trade about, even with the wide variety of sounds, sometimes it’s hard for an artist to distinguish oneself, especially if he happens to be a rather traditional acoustic guitar playing folkie. But this week, we have a real standout record from something of a veteran artist now, Shawn Mullins, whose new CD, his ninth formal studio album, is called My Stupid Heart.
A Georgia native, 47-year-old Shawn Mullins became friends with Amy Ray of Indigo Girls while in high school. In college he performed as both a folkie and was part of a military marching band. He attended college on an ROTC scholarship considering a military career, but after he served his stint in the reserves, he went back to music, and formed the band Shawn Mullins and Twice Removed, before embarking on his solo career. In 1998, his song Lullaby from his album Soul’s Cave was a big commercial success, and some of his songs were used on hit TV shows such as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Scrubs.” His song Shimmer was used in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia.
He has been releasing albums on a fairly infrequent basis. His last album, Light You Up was five years ago. But now he is out with an all new recording with some of his best songs, I think. He has all the attributes you expect in a good singer-songwriter: thoughtful lyrics, a warm, inviting baritone voice and very tasteful musical backing. The album was done in Nashville, so it has a little twang in spots with steel guitar, but it can also be a little atmospheric. And there are a number of opportunities for the band to stretch out instrumentally, which is not always the case for folk-based singer-songwriters. Like many a Nashville-based composer, Mullins collaborates with other songwriters on most of the tunes. If one reads the credits on the CD booklet, and listen to the material, one can see that songwriting partner concept gave the album more depth and variety.
Among Mullins’ instrumental collaborators on the album are Tom Bukovoc and Jerry McPherson on guitars, bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Gerry Hansen. Making occasional appearances is veteran steel guitar man Dan Dugmore, who can sometimes add a bit more country twang than I might want from an album of songs that are hardly the grist for the Nashville music mill.
The album gets under way with a track called The Great Unknown which is a kind of philosophical look at performing in a bar. It’s typical of the appealing and tasteful sound of the album. <<>>
Mullins wrote several of the album’s songs with one Chuck Cannon, who also sings some of the backing vocals. It All Comes Down to Love is a track credited solely to Cannon. The song is a lighthearted look at the supposed permanence of love as opposed the woes of the world. <<>>
Also dealing with the events of the day is Ferguson co-written by Mullins and Cannon. It was inspired by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the larger questions they raise. It has the sound of a cross between a swampy blues tune and an old spiritual. <<>>
The title song My Stupid Heart is not surprisingly is a kind of wry love song. Musically it’s an interesting pastiche with hints of Beatles influence along with a twangy steel guitar. <<>>
One of the best love songs on the record is Go and Fall which also has some lyrical twists along with an atmospheric musical setting. <<>>
One of two compositions Mullins co-wrote with songwriter Max Gomez, is Roll On By, an upbeat song of encouragement, with the message of taking a positive attitude despite what the world deals you. <<>>
Another of the more upbeat songs on the album is Never Gonna Let Her Go which evokes the sound of Robbie Robertson and the Band. <<>>
In terms of telling a lyrical narrative, probably the best song on the album is Sunshine co-written by Mullins and Patrick Blanchard. It centers on a character, a veteran, who is down on his luck and need a break. <<>>
Shawn Mullins’ new album My Stupid Heart is one of the best from this respected singer-songwriter who has enjoyed some commercial success. It’s the epitome of what a good singer-songwriter album should be like, with high quality, literate, interesting lyrics, an appealing, very tasteful musical backing and great vocals, which perfectly fit the material. Mullins collaborates with five different songwriters on the album and thus brings in different approaches, which helps to give the album some more variety and a wider perspective. It’s all very nicely done.
Our grade for sound quality is just short of an “A.” The mix is very nice, the use of sonic space is skillful and the vocals are warm and clear. If only the recording had not been cranked up though unnecessary volume compression, in the mastering process, it would have received a top grade.
In you like singer-songwriters there are almost endless choices, and a lot are very good, but Shawn Mullins new release My Stupid Heart is definitely a standout in the crowded field.
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