by KEN MAIURI Gazette Contributing Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2012
"The Good Stuff" referred to in the title of Peter Mulvey's new album of standards might be the high-quality songs he and his band have chosen to cover (tunes by Duke Ellington, Willie Nelson, Tom Waits and others).
But it's also another way of describing what the musicians brought to the project: top-notch live chemistry.
That's become a little more rare in this age of digital recording, when it's possible (and in some ways easier) to painstakingly create highly edited perfection from separate elements instead of going for uniquely organic, in-the-moment performances from a full band.
So it takes guts to throw musicians in a room with a time limit, minimal preparation and maximum openness and see what happens.
In the case of Mulvey's album, which was recorded in a mere three days, the music breathes.
The singer-songwriter chose local pros (his longtime writing partner and producer David Goodrich on guitars; Paul Kochanski on upright bass; Jason Smith on drums; and Randy Sabien on violin, piano and organ) and dubbed them the Crumbling Beauties. They didn't rehearse before the recording session - couldn't, really, since Mulvey hadn't even decided what songs to try yet.
Instead, in the studio, Mulvey would suggest a song that some or most of the musicians didn't know. They'd figure out an arrangement together and record it a few times. They did this for 20 songs and chose the most cohesive 14.
The on-the-fly creations contain some fantastic moments, captured in their one-time-only glory, like the way the band keeps an ominous storm rumbling from deep within their slinking version of Joe Henry's "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation." The acoustic guitar sounds like a tense clock ticking, drumsticks rattle across metal, mallets pound thunder out of a big drum, the violin moans, picks scrape against guitar strings, and Mulvey's dusty baritone cracks with anxiety and then dips down deep in his vocal range for a foghorn croak.
"When everything isn't planned ahead of time, it can be magical how each musician finds a way into the song," Mulvey said. "When the performance comes alive, it's such a charge."
"Everybody Knows," the legendary late-'80s Leonard Cohen song, had a robotic assembly line pulse in its original version, but the Beauties give it a funky groove and Mulvey swaggers along sniffing and spitting the bleak lyrics. It's sparse and percolating, until Goodrich's unruly and very electric guitar solo suddenly and awesomely overtakes the song like a howling hurricane.
Kochanski and Smith thunk and thump out a hip-kinking rhythm for Jolie Holland's "Old Fashioned Morphine," with Mulvey and pianist Sabien having jazzy fun over the top while Goodrich's rattling and bluesy acoustic slide guitar buzzes around. "Sister don't get worried / because this world is almost done," Mulvey sings playfully. "It was good enough for old William Burroughs / now it's good enough for me."
Anita Suhanin's "Sugar" is a clacking rhumba with Mulvey hanging out in his deepest voice, making you an offer you can't refuse.
Throw in a few highly melodic instrumentals (including a guitar duet on Thelonious Monk's "Ruby, My Dear" and selections by Goodrich and Bill Frisell), plus Mulvey's informative and friendly liner notes and you have the aptly named "The Good Stuff," which hits stores March 27.
Mulvey and company will have a CD release show at the Iron Horse this Friday March 23 at 7 p.m. Rusty Belle will open the show.