Unchained Music Blog

Unchained Music Blog

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Chris Murphy - Water Under the Bridge (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

Chris Murphy’s longstanding career as one of America’s most respected traditional multi-instrumentalists and songwriters has long flown under the mainstream radar, for the most part, but he’s been able to build on what is amounting, at this point, to a real legacy as one of his generation’s brightest songwriting talents. His latest studio release Water Under the Bridge is another expansive fourteen song collection with a wide ranging songwriting sensibility that doesn’t aim for the lowest common folk denominator. Instead, there’s depth and range to Murphy’s sound far outstripping the efforts of similar, perhaps more staid, contemporaries. Water Under the Bridge, likewise, highlights Murphy’s increasing flair for powerful lyrical content as many of these songs make use of the same traditional language without ever imitating it too broadly. Chris Murphy’s recent run has been quite impressive indeed and Water Under the Bridge is another stellar entry in his catalog.

His literary bent shows with the opener “Moveable Feast” and the quasi-ragtime gait of the instrumental is a pleasing, unassuming way of opening things up. The jazz flavor continues with the wonderfully entitled “Joan Crawford Dances the Charleston” and Murphy guides his accompanying players through a relaxed, eminently tasteful jaunt through a variety of light jazz tropes they fire up just a little with the force of their own personalities. “Table for Two”, the album’s first lyric, benefits from a wryly deadpan Murphy vocal and some restrained yet effective humor in the lyrics. Murphy definitely has great skill with language, but his greatest skill is in crafting intelligent yet accessible lyrics for his songs. We’re back into instrumental territory with “Riverboat Blues” and this extended blues work out strikes just the right chord without ever lapsing into purple clich├ęs and the guitar work is especially exemplary. The beautifully titled “I Swear I’m Going to Learn This Time” is a gentle lament with ample style and some real pathos in the lyrics. It’s one of the album’s finest songs.

The track “Benzedrine Shuffle” doesn’t ever reach the manic highs implied by its title, thankfully, and proves one of the more stylish musical performances on Water Under the Bridge. One of the earthier groovers to come along is definitely “Tomcat Blues”, a near Tom Waits tribute with Murphy giving us his best growl and obviously relishing every second of the song’s theatricality. The title song begins with a classic count-in from the drummer and then it’s off to the races with some breezy jazz that affords each instrument in the mix a chance to shine. Water Under the Bridge ends with another powerful instrumental, “Cheer Up Mickey”, that’s just Murphy’s violin and a stomp box making a resounding final musical statement for an album that’s difficult to forget.

Alpha Mule - Peripheral Vision (2017)

Written by Raymond Burris, posted by blog admin

Alpha Mule’s ten song debut Peripheral Vision reminds us that traditional music doesn’t need to be considered the purview of aging folkies and museum studies. The forms they utilize over the course of the album’s ten songs remain vital vehicles for self expression and they bring a number of modern touches to bear along the way that enriches the already exceptional songwriting. There are no covers to be found on this release; a pleasant enough surprise. Instead, Joe Forkan and Eric Stoner navigate listeners through an exceptional musical ride that never sounds stilted or imitative. They do a superb job crafting tunes that are reminiscent of longstanding classics in their respective genres yet stand alone as individual works. Peripheral Vision is a wonder in 2017/2018 – a traditionally minded album that, nonetheless, speaks vividly about the creative hearts behind its composition and rife with the sort of kinetic chemistry between players that’s long been a staple of the art.

“Corpus Christi” is the album’s first tune and, far and away, its most self-consciously evocative moment. This is a near ideal example of how the musicians bring modern music making techniques into the traditional music picture and it remains, by album’s end, one of its best tunes. The second track “On the Moon” throws off some low-heat jazzy sparks without ever getting too fancy about it while still culling its sound from the duo’s customary array of influences. There’s a sense of humor with this tune that shows the songwriting’s thorough understanding of traditional country and blues songwriting ethos while never entirely aping them. Some modern touches come through on the track “The Distance” as well – namely the keyboards adding color at critical points in the track. Outside of that, however, there’s still another sturdy traditional spine that makes the song stand straight up for listeners. “Pavlov” moves the album in a clearer blues direction with great success and boasts, arguably, the album’s best lyric.

The move into the blues continues with the song “Mule in the Mine”. Forkan and Stoner draw from a wealth of traditional blues and classic country imagery for this one, but it’s vividly drawn regardless and they bring their own idiosyncratic brand of humor to the piece that enhances its pathos. “The Ballad of Huell Howser” promises, on title alone, something longer, but this sparkling musical workout never overstays its welcome and stands as a model of musical concision quite unlike anything else on Peripheral Vision. The album’s final song “Empire” shows off some larger concerns than the typical micro we hear in the early tunes and the traditional form proves more than capable of sustaining these big thoughts without sounding like it lacks something. Alpha Mule’s Peripheral Vision is a winner from first

Monday, February 5, 2018

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by Lance Wright, posted by blog admin

Shofar made some waves in the indie scene with their initial two studio outings in the early 2000’s but fell silent as a recording outfit for a number of years. Their return to the fray finds the music world obviously forever changed, but Shofar has evolved as well and there’s a deeper maturity to these new recordings than we heard on their admittedly fine older material. Songwriter and lead singer Larry Hagner inhabits these songs with a strong presence, but he’s backed with some equally fine secondary vocals that help enhance both the accessibility and appeal of the songwriting and performances. They carry on in the fine rock tradition that’s part of the Minneapolis area’s history with a great mix of the classic and modern marking their warm sound. Melody plays an underrated role, as well, in their winning presentation, but repeated listens to this self-titled EP emphasizes how important it is to satisfying the band’s ambitions.

Passion is never in short supply. The desperation and claustrophobia coloring much of “Running” alternates with moments of uneasy calm, but there’s a sense pervading the music that the singer is a survivor. It’s a brave number, as well, thanks to its potential to overwhelm, but Hagner and his band mates orchestrate the changes with full knowledge of the song’s power and play it accordingly. “Powerman” is a tune where the power dynamics of the opener are radically de-emphasized, but the restless jangle and forward motion of the tune makes a big impact on listeners. Hagner’s voice is joined by his band mates at key points to round off a truly winning number. The third track “Shades of Grey” is cut from a similar musical mold with some extra guitar punch and has the sort of songwriting intelligence longtime fans of Shofar will be used to and newcomers will find so appealing about the band’s music.

“Hands Down” is another high point on the EP bringing our a more rambunctious facet of the band’s character while still sounding recognizably like Shofar. Hagner’s particularly memorable on this tune with a singing performance completely dominating the track. There’s a sharp shift in subject matter and delivery with the EP’s last two songs. The first, “Countdown”, has a rather dire outlook that the musical arrangement makes a little more palatable while the concluding number on the EP, “The Coming”, isn’t far removed from the band’s material from the first go around in the century’s dawning decade. Shofar stands apart for a number of reasons – the sheer creativity and exuberance coming through on every performance, the sharply tuned lyrical content, and the obvious attention to vocal excellence separate them from the pack and make them one of the more memorable acts working in the indie scene today.