Peter Mulvey Covers “The Good Stuff”
(Radiohead, Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jolie Holland, U2 & more!)

Peter Mulvey was one of the very first artists we wrote about here at Cover Lay Down, way back in October of 2007; at the time, we claimed that Mulvey has the versatility of the true cover artist, and the knack of bringing new meaning to a wide breadth of song, citing both his 2002 covers album Ten Thousand Mornings, recorded live in the Davis Square subway station just outside of Boston, and his collaborative work with lo-fi coverfolk supergroup Redbird as ample evidence.

Since then, we’ve come back to Mulvey’s work multiple times, both as a solo artist and a collaborator. His whimsical, ragged takes on songs originally written and performed by Dar Williams, Paul Simon, U2, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and others have helped illuminate the works of these songwriters, and lent a sense of whimsy to features on Oceanfolk, Winterfolk, Show Tunes covers, and more. And, in 2009, in order to acknowledge the impending release of Letters From a Flying Machine, we revisited our original post, adding the lone cover from that album – a delightful take on Ira and George Gershwin’s Our Love Is Here To Stay – as justification for our continued celebration.

As we noted in our first look at the artist, Mulvey’s voice falls towards the Tom Waits and Dylan camps, full of feeling but hardly pure; fans tend to cite his songwriting and his guitarplay, which range from spoken word and acoustic swingjazz to contemporary folk and Americana, rather than his strained, whispery, sandpapery voice, when explaining their affection for the Milwaukee-based, Boston-and-Dublin bred singer-songwriter who has produced 16 albums in his career, and toured the country five times by bike. And certainly, Mulvey and Goodrich celebrate their collaborative fretwork, with the powerful all-instrumental album Nine Days Wonder, released last year, standing as an apt culmination of their partnership.

But there’s something to be said for the power of song wrung from a broken instrument, and as a vocalist, Mulvey is a master of making the most of every note. As a member of Redbird, which also includes Mulvey’s constant sideman and collaborator David “Goody” Goodrich and coffeehouse folkstars (and eventual married couple) Kris Delmhorst and Jeffrey Foucault, he lends a rough edge to harmonies, expanding the sonic experience, grounding the work in emotional grit. And, as a solo cover artist, whether in his earliest live recordings as a more traditional singer-songwriter or his most recent roots and jazz transformations, the spare voice recasts lyrics powerfully.

At the end of March, Mulvey’s third major covers-oriented project will come to fruition with the release of The Good Stuff, recorded last summer at the Signature Sounds studio just a few miles down the road from where our own blog is based. The plan was to make a rustic yet living album of standards, with rootsy instrumentation courtesy of Goodrich and others, and a long list of possible songs to winnow down to a single album, based primarily on the songs’ ability to come across as both timeless and lasting.

And although we’ve promised not to offer or stream any of the new tracks until early March, having just received our preview copy of the album this week, we’re thrilled to announce that the project succeeds in spades, due to a potent combination of acoustic genre play, nuanced craftsmanship, and that healthy double-dollop of whimsy and respect which have become the hallmark of Mulvey’s work.

As in Ten Thousand Mornings, Mulvey’s definition of “standards” ranges wide indeed, taking us from Duke Ellington to Tom Waits to Jolie Holland in the span of a single album. But where in that earlier project it was the environment which made for a vibrant, unified experience, with the echoes in the brick and tile underground and the screech and shuss of trains and passersby lending an air of realism, here, even as they mutate and transform to match the sense and sensibility of the set, it is the voice and guitar alone which create cohesion, with each carefully chosen setting providing new insight into a well-chosen classic song.

The result is practically miraculous: a diverse set, simultaneously ancient and utterly new, which calls us to a myriad of authentic folk and jazz forms, with the music as adept a carrier of the century as the songbook. His Mood Indigo and High Noon combine bouncy fiddlefolk with a minor key swing, coating a deceptively gentle delivery in dramatic tension; his Thelonious Monk instrumental is just ragged enough; his take on Willie Nelson’s Are You Sure? is a gleeful acoustic country duet, gentle and wry; his take on Tom Waits’ Green Grass is low and hollow, a death’s dirge that rises into the night; his cover of Holland’s Old Fashioned Morphine is a bluesy Waits-esque interpretation, a drink and drug-addled hallucination; his Everybody Knows is a deep, funky samba that wails into electric smoke. If, as Mulvey notes, these are the songs “that will be firmly ensconced in the firmament when half a century blows all the rest of the chaff away”, then there’s a good chance that his will be the versions which we hear in our heads.

As noted above, we’ve been asked not to spill the beans on the newest coverage from Mulvey. But here’s a build-up of older coverage from the man himself, both with and without friends – to reinforce your appreciation for a fine artist and interpreter, and to whet your whistle for the March 28th release of The Good Stuff.

  • Peter Mulvey: Hard Time Come Again No More (pub. Stephen Foster)

    (from Glencree, 1999)

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Hayward Williams covers Tom Waits’ Long Way Home w/ Peter Mulvey and Brianna Lane on guitar and harmony vocals

Category: Compilations & Tribute Albums, Peter Mulvey Comment »

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