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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1439

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Peter Mulvey: The Knuckleball Suite
by George Graham

(Signature Sounds 1297 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/12/2006)

Singer-songwriters come in a lot of different musical and lyrical flavors. Some rock, while others are more ethereal. Some specialize in love songs, while others focus on social commentary. Some are plain-spoken while others present songs with all kinds of obscure lyrical references. Some come across as serious poets, while others are decidedly witty. This week we have the latest recording by Peter Mulvey, called The Knuckleball Suite, and on it, he is a little bit of all of those.

Peter Mulvey is one of a cadre of New England singer-songwriters to have emerged on the national scene in the past decade. Mulvey is a native Wisconsan, growing up in Milwaukee, and playing in bands as he studied theater at Marquette University. After graduation, he decided to become the traveling troubadour, and went to Ireland, where he spent a couple of years working as a street busker. He then returned to the US and settled in Boston, where he did more of the same, performing on the streets and in the subway. But at the same time, he began attracting attention with his CDs, the first being self-released, but then issuing a series of recordings through the Massachusetts-based folk label Signature Sounds. Each has attracted positive reviews and has helped his popularity spread. He now spends most of his time touring all over the country and into Europe.

The Knuckleball Suite is Mulvey's ninth solo release. He has also recorded with groups, and was a third of the folk trio Red Bird, with Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst. One of his CDs, Ten Thousands Mornings was distinctive for being a collection of exclusively cover songs, recorded in the Boston Subway. Mulvey's last CD Kitchen Radio, released in 2004 also explored different sides of the musical coin, with its social commentary, wit and distinctive grooves.

The Knuckleball Suite ranges from some amusing lyrical nonsense to veiled political commentary to a couple of love songs. He also does a creative cover of a tune by U2. Mulvey said that his CD was recorded over a three day period, and features a small band with some additional players. He works again with producer David Goodrich, and the CD's regular band includes Goodrich on guitar, banjo and other stringed instruments, Lou Ulrich on bass and Mike Pehl on drums. Mulvey went into the studio without prior rehearsals with the band. They were given the tunes at the sessions, and ran the songs down in the manner of a jazz recording session. The recordings were either second or third takes, and that is apparent from the CD's spontaneous feel. Mulvey's slightly gruff voice, occasionally reminiscent of Mark Knopfler, often seems to sound as if he is furtively sharing some kind of secret with us.

Kicking off The Knuckleball Suite is Old Simon Stimson, showing Mulvey's lyrical ability. He takes a bunch of old similes and turns them inside out, somehow making them sound very profound, or at least as some kind of leaked revelation. <<>>

With some social commentary is Abilene (The Eisenhower Waltz), an ode to the president who famously warned against the power of the military-industrial complex. <<>>

Taking a very different direction is Girl in the Hi-Tops, a rocking love song. <<>>

One of the most interesting tracks is You and Me and the Ten Thousand Things, which musically resembles an old Tim Pan Alley-era song, down to the inclusion of a separate introductory verse. Lyrically, it's full of literary references, including a line from Shakespeare, as it comments on the state of the world. <<>>

The subject of capital punishment is addressed on the surprisingly gentle-sounding Horses. The reference to horses is taken from a quote from human rights activist Elie Weisel, who said "Even if a horse does deserve punishment, what makes you think it is up to you to inflict it?" <<>>

Mulvey's U2 cover is The Fly. Mulvey certainly gives the song a very different approach: a kind of vaguely swampy swinging blues. <<>>

Another lament on the state of the world comes on the song Marty and Lou, done in a more intimate setting. <<>>

The title song, The Knuckleball Suite is another waltz, and is one of the more lyrically cryptic, though outwardly it's a kind of reminiscence of old summers at the ballfield. <<>>

The CD contains what amounts to be a musical sequel to a great song called 29 Cent Head that appeared on Kitchen Radio in 2004. The Fix Is On again takes a somewhat amusing and conspiratorial-sounding look at the state of the world.

Peter Mulvey's new ninth CD The Knuckleball Suite is a fine recording from one of the many bright lights on the rather crowded Boston area singer-songwriter scene. Helping this CD to stand out are the creative, though generally understated instrumental settings. Mulvey is a great lyric writer with a full sense of wit and irony, as well as the ability to use clever turns of phrase. And by the way, in the CD booklet he gives attribution to quite a few people who inspired specific lines, from Dwight Eisenhower to Shakespeare to Mel Brooks. The fact that this CD was recorded with the band members essentially learning the songs as they went along, adds to the spontaneous feel.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B Plus. While much of the acoustic instrumentation sounds pleasing, the recording quality of Mulvey's vocals is somewhat inconsistent, with some tracks having a more open and airy sound than others. Several tracks have an overly compressed in-your-face quality, and overall the dynamic range is mediocre at best.

There is no shortage of singer-songwriters on the scene, and the Boston area has certainly been the source of a bumper crop. But Peter Mulvey is a standout for his wide range, lyrical adroitness and distinctive musical persona.

(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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