“Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You”
Evoking the soul of Americana, folk, alt-country, indie rock, and other currently ubiquitously genres seems to be the Holy Grail of many freshly-minted bands, as if making a definitive musical statement somehow also involves sampling the full spectrum and pretending it adds up to something more than a cheap buffet.
In that sense, every young, guitar- or banjo-toting pop/rock band should take some notes from Mark Mulcahy. The cult songwriter and former Miracle Legion and Polaris leader has endured no shortage of hardship in recent years, including losing his wife and raising his two young daughters in the aftermath. But it’s not written all over new album “Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You” — at least not in the alternately bludgeoning or obscure ways that so many hardships are laid out in song. “Dear Mark J. Mulcahy” doles out its emotions in pin pricks and splinters, tight and snappy, rollicking and sardonic, but always with economy in mind.
That’s not to say that Mulcahy isn’t having a good time. “Everybody Hustles Leo” is a barn-burner with more than a hint of jangly soul, and “Let the Fireflies Fly Away” (the album’s rock-solid core) manages to be both funny and menacing with an insanely solid backbeat. After a Velvet Underground/Dylan-humping intro, “He’s a Magnet” pivots into a disarmingly up-front rocker with hummingbird flute accompaniment.
Some of the lyrical swagger reads like something only Springsteen or a young Lou Reed could pull off: “Here comes Jesus Christ again / he’s got that love of nothing that we wish we all had.” Here it’s convincing, and not just because it’s spare and raggedly poetic. Mulcahy’s got his themes (drugs and emotional loss pop up frequently) but he never lingers too long on a sentiment, preferring to shuffle us past them like a carnival barker who knows others are waiting in line. He wants it to sink in and mean something but isn’t obsessed with it happening on the first go-round.
The breezy, waltz-like “Badly Madly” simmers with an intensity that would make the polyglot balladeers of DeVotchKa jealous, while album-closer “Where’s the Indifference Now” is a chilling, stream-of-consciousness tale of suicide (or is it?) that unfolds like a horror movie, dark and voyeuristic but oddly cathartic in the way it puts an exclamation mark on the preceding 11 songs.
It’s easy to see why Mulcahy’s a musician’s-musician (having enjoyed a 2009 tribute album featuring covers of his songs by R.E.M., Thom Yorke, The National, Frank Black, and many more). His music is straightforward and densely layered, unpretentious in melody but lyrically fussed over and able to withstand even the most ball-busting scrutiny. If it sometimes comes off as dry, it’s because Mulcahy has no use for condiments or filler. This is the meat itself, barbecued and sizzling on your plate.