Soul's Core

Shawn Mullins

Columbia Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


There's much to be found on your radio these days - glittery pop, grinding hard rock, smooth R&B, angry rap - but there is a distinct shortage of one simple element: sincerity. It's the quality so many of today's acts seem to be missing as they angle for the hot video, the stretch limo, the million-dollar payday. And it's the quality that's the very essence of Shawn Mullins' approach to music.

Mullins' personal story looms almost as large as the music itself at times… meeting and swapping songs with future Indigo Girl Emily Saliers in high school… spending several years in the military… exiting it for the life of a troubadour, bumming around the southeast playing acoustic sets and slowly building a following… never catching up to that one big break, until one day a DJ at a big Atlanta station shrugged his shoulders, said "Why not?" and added a track called "Lullaby" to his playlist. The rest of his rocket ride to the top is the stuff of legend.

In its original incarnation, Soul's Core was Mullins' fifth indie disc, and most mature and full-bodied effort. The album plays almost like an artist's notebook, one confidently sketched vignette after another, with the emphasis clearly on Mullins' frank yet earnest storytelling style. His roots in the rural story-songs of the Guthries and Dylans before him are evident in tracks like "The Ballad of Billy Jo McKay," about a restless southern boy itching to make a break for the city.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But on this album Mullins' music turns a corner from the somewhat self-conscious and occasionally precious style of his earlier, sparsely arranged albums to embrace a fuller sound and wider thematic range. "Anchored In You" might have made a beautiful acoustic love song, but multiplies its impact with a full band to carry Mullins through its soaring chorus. "Shimmer" is actually a remake of an acoustic track from his previous album, and while both versions shine, the full-band arrangement here feels much more appropriate to the rich theme of the way a child's innocence can influence his/her parents.

It's not that Mullins doesn't make room for his folkie roots - the brilliant "Twin Rocks, Oregon," in which he and his guitar spin a solo tale of a random, potentially life-altering encounter by the side of the highway, is evidence enough of that. It's just that he's willing now to make the leap and give strong narratives like "Tannin Bed Song" and "Gulf Of Mexico" the extra power they gain with a full band backing him.

Parts of this album play like a travelogue, conveying life on the road with all its twists and turns, lonely moments and affirmations. Thankfully, Mullins' travels included a stop in LA, where he composed "Lullaby," the sharply drawn portrait of a girl trying to hang onto hope in a hopeless town, and his ticket to the big time. The song's matter-of-fact spoken verses and soaring chorus are supported by Mullins' sharp acoustic picking, evocative drum loops, piano and strings, capturing a time and a place and a mood so well it seems almost like destiny that it hit number one.

Some transitional albums feel awkward, like the artist is caught between two worlds. And indeed, the contrast between Mullins' earlier acoustic efforts and 2000's Beneath The Velvet Sun is striking, but Soul's Core, the stepping stone between them, feels completely organic and natural. The folkie numbers are spiced up perfectly by gospel-funk workouts like "Soul Child" and "September In Seattle," with its buoyant piano, rude clavinet, soulful background vocals from Shelley Yankus, and wild electric guitar solo. The only track here that feels at all like a misstep is his affectionate but overlong remake of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down."

The essence of Mullins' approach can be found in tracks like "Patrick's Song," an ode to a friend dying young, and "You Mean Everything To Me," a simple, devastatingly sincere love song. There's no posing here; Mullins feels something inside and just lets fly with it in song. It's an approach that takes mountains of courage and no small talent to pull off, and here Mullins does it. Sincerity -- what a concept.

Rating: A-

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.