4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Admittedly, I’ve not been as familiar or as enamoured with Peter Mulvey as I am others of his lonely-folk ilk.
I find that what appeals to any individual listener is the personal connection one has made with an artist. For every John Wort Hannam, Dar Willians, Martyn Joseph, or Mark Erelli that I’ve related to, there are a hundred others with whom—usually through no fault of their own—I’ve failed to align.
To my ears, there has been little to distinguish Mulvey from the hordes of ‘sages on stages’ making their living performing songs in coffee shops and folk clubs across North America.
Although I’ve purchased one of his albums—2007’s acoustic envisioning of his catalogue, Notes from Elsewhere—and heard a couple others—including the very impressive Boston subway covers album Ten Thousand Mornings—I’ve never connected with his music on an ongoing basis.
I’ve enjoyed his albums while they were playing, but I don’t recall ever going to the shelf and thinking, “I need me some Mulvey.” Maybe it would be different had I experienced a concert, but I haven’t, or if I spent time in Milwaukee, which I don’t.
All that changes now with Silver Ladder. Maybe it was the whimsical cover art. It could have been seeing Chuck Prophet listed as producer. Perhaps it was that the album was assigned to me for review and so I was forced to listen to it a bit more judiciously than I might have otherwise.
But, I think this is what it was that pulled me in: I never realized how much Mulvey shared—in cadence, outlook, and themes—with Phil Lynott’s spoken blues, rock poet stylings and on a pair of tracks here (“What Else Was It?” and “Copenhagen Airport”), Mulvey could be giving voice to long-forgotten demos from Solo in Soho or an unreleased Thin Lizzy album. Continuing the classic rock allusion, I could hear Ian Hunter singing “Sympathies” and “Remember the Milkman?”
Maybe I’m the only one who hears it. That’s okay.
Whatever it was that got me here, I’m glad it did. Turns out Silver Linings—released in a year of amazing Americana recordings from the likes of Rosanne Cash, Eliza Gilkyson, Jeff Black, and Laurie Lewis—stands with the best of them.
“And I’ll greet all the good people
With my head held high and my wide open hand
And I’ll wait for you down by the willow
But just once a year”
is just one of the discordant sets of lyrics populating these songs, those from “Josephine,” one of the album’s most striking moments.
“You Don’t Have To Tell Me” and “Back to the Wind” are free-wheeling rockers buoyed by considerable wordsmithery:
“In the middle of a lifetime the road gets a little squirrelly
You might lost your sense of humor for a year or two.”
Like the best songwriters, Mulvey doesn’t allow smugness to weed his garden of words. While clearly betrayed by “Lies You Forgot You Told,” his anger is tempered by a realization that he is not without fault. Still, “with any kind of luck by now, it will be falling on your head tenfold” allows hope for the cynic.
Silver Ladder is a deep, unified album. While the songs certainly stand up to isolated listening, it feels as if it should be experienced as a whole. The songs aren’t so much thematically linked as they are elements of a common fabric. The verbosity of “If You Shoot at a King You Must Kill Him” is balanced by the lyrical brevity of “Copenhagen Airport” and “Landfall.” The opening “Lies You Forgot You Told” naturally and ideally flows into “You Don’t Have To Tell Me.”
The core band—Mulvey (guitar), Prophet (guitar, drums), Aiden Hawken (keys, guitar), James DePrato (guitars), David Kemper (drums) and Tom Freund (bass)—is augmented by others including the wondrous vocals of Anita Suhanin (“Where Did You Go?” and heard on previous Mulvey recordings), and the equally impressive Sara Watkins (vocally on “Remember the Milkman?”, violin on “Landfall.”)
In my opinion, Peter Mulvey’s Silver Ladder is a roots rock album of the highest order.