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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1568

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Peter Mulvey: Letters from a Flying Machine
by George Graham

(Signature Sounds 2024 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/12/2009)

The musical world is not exactly lacking for singer-songwriters, those folkies with their acoustic guitars and lyrics that supposedly have something significant to say. But like a good sporting event, one may know the broad outlines of what is going to happen and perhaps the players involved, but the great variation and surprises in the details are what make people come back time and again.

This week we have the new CD by a veteran of the new folk scene who serves up a recording that has the familiar folkie ingredients, but still manages to generate pleasure in the details and variations. It's Peter Mulvey, whose new 12th CD is called Letters from a Flying Machine.

Mulvey has had an interesting career and life story. A native of Wisconsin, Mulvey studied theater at Marquette University, and then took off for the life of a singing troubadour, traveling to Ireland and elsewhere, busking. According to his biography, after being fired from his job at a Kinko's copy store in Boston, he decided to sing in the subways as a full-time job, becoming an increasingly adroit performer and a clever songwriter, obviously with the need to attract people's attention in a limited amount of time. In fact, one of Mulvey's early albums was recorded in the subways. But he graduated from that, becoming an itinerant singer-songwriter making the coffeehouse circuit, and releasing a stream of appealing recordings, with a goal of having some variation from one to the next. With his background as a street performer, and still very much a live musician, Mulvey had previously recorded his CDs in a matter of a few days, often aiming for a more "live" feel. With this CD largely recorded in Mulvey's home studio and living room, he had the option of spending more time on it, with more considered arrangements, without losing the musical honesty and cleverness that has come to be Mulvey's trademark.

Long associated with the Boston music scene, Peter Mulvey has returned to Milwaukee, where he grew up, and recorded his latest CD largely at home, though some musicians from the Boston area were recruited and recorded their parts closer to home. Lyrically, this CD has, according to Mulvey, a kind of theme to it: "Time-time-time-love," with the exploration of the classic subjects the glue that holds the CD together. Mulvey also noted that the recording is best listened to in order, as the attitude of the songs gradually change toward the more optimistic as the CD unfolds.

The title of the recording comes from four unusual spoken-word tracks, written as letters to young family members from the passenger seat of an airliner while on the way to a gig. The recipients include a newborn niece who would never be able to comprehend the meaning, but Mulvey intended them as a kind of keepsake to remind the children what the world was like when they were so young.

The instrumentation is largely acoustic, with Mulvey pointing out that there is hardly an electric guitar to be heard, and the bassist, Peter Kochansky, plays acoustic throughout. The small regular band also include drummer/percussionist Zak Trojano, and friend and frequent musical colleague Kris Delmhorst doing backing vocals.

Things get under way with a piece called Kids in the Square, which considers the state of the world from the less optimistic view that marks the beginning of the album. <<>>

Mulvey is known for his often clever lyrics, and most of his CDs contain at least one of those wordy semi-tongue-in-cheek pieces. Some People is another example of Mulvey's adroitness and wit, this time taking a kind of swing-style approach. <<>>

Taking a decidedly different direction is a piece called Windshield, a kind set of observations and rumination on people in a bar. <<>>

The first of Mulvey's letters to his young nieces and nephews is the title piece, Letter from a Flying Machine, spoken to the tune of a Bach sonata played on violin by Hilary Mercer. <<>>

Another lyrically intriguing piece is Dynamite Bill, whose namesake is explained in another of the spoken word pieces, as someone known by his family who was skilled at blowing things up. He becomes a metaphor in the song about the exploits of a woman named January Medley. <<>>

Taking yet another direction is Mailman a kind of introspective song about events inspired by the receipt of a gift book of poetry. <<>>

The CD's lengthiest track is one of the spoken word pieces, Vlad the Astrophyicist, which considers one of the cosmic questions with a surprising degree of profundity. <<>>

If there is a song on the CD that might be likely to find wider audiences beyond the world of eclectic folkie fans it's Wing and a Prayer. Being near the end of the CD, in following Mulvey's design, it's probably the most optimistic on the recording.

Peter Mulvey's new 12th CD Letters from a Flying Machine is another memorable album from a remarkably talented and creative singer-songwriter. A great lyricist, and an appealing vocalist who tends to sound as if he is telling you something furtively, Mulvey adds a rather different approach on this recording with his spoken sequences and the letters intended as keepsakes for young family members. After being known for making CDs in just a few days each, he spent a lot more time on this one, and it sounds it, with the musical tasteful musical arrangements rising to the level of his lyrical sophistication.

Out grade for sound quality is close to an "A." Though parts of it were home recordings, the results are on a professional level, and the acoustic instruments are well captured, as are Mulvey's unique vocals. Dynamic range is not bad, by today's poor contemporary standards of loudness at all costs.

One may ask, why another singer-songwriter album? It's a good question, but when someone as creative as Peter Mulvey makes a new recording, the question answers itself.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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