9th Ward Pickin' Parlor

Shawn Mullins

Vanguard Records, 2006


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


"Well I told him I too had been traveling around
Living in my van from town to town
Playing for tips and whatever records I could move
I said I don't reckon I'll be making it big
It's hard to get rich off a tour playing coffeehouse gigs
He said yeah, but isn't it a blessing to be able to do what you want to do?"

"Twin Rocks, Oregon" by Shawn Mullins (Soul's Core, 1998)

It's a familiar story: Gifted, plucky independent-minded artist self-releases subtle, superbly crafted CDs in relative obscurity; gifted artist pushes towards a more mainstream sound; gifted artist is nabbed and swallowed whole by the music industry machine; gifted artist wanders in the wilderness of semi-fame for several years before finding his/her way back to the reasons he/she was making music in the first place.

But hey, if the cliche fits, you might as well wear it, and it fits Shawn Mullins like a custom-tailored suit.

After self-publishing a series of quirky, creative, primarily acoustic folk-pop discs through the 90s, Mullins pushed his sound forward, adding several more melody-conscious electric cuts to 1998's Soul's Core and hit the proverbial jackpot. "Lullaby" took off on radio, Sony signed him and re-released my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Soul's Core, the single went #1, and then it all slowly went sideways. Nothing else off Soul's Core performed on the singles charts. Then the label folk didn't care for the follow-up album he turned in and pressed him to record four more "potential single"-type tunes that they proceeded to front-load onto 2000's Beneath A Velvet Sun -- an album whose essential craftsmanship was so strong that even label interference couldn't muck it up.

From there Mullins wandered into an alliance with fellow iconoclasts Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge as The Thorns, which resulted in a pleasant if rather weightless album, a moderately successful tour and a long period of silence.

The silence is broken with 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor, Mullins' official return to his roots, and the natural successor to Soul's Core that his fans have been waiting for since 1998. This is classic acoustic singer-songwriter material, full of nuance and beauty and wry observations, augmented with full-band arrangements only to the degree the song demands it. Vanguard Records -- host to the likes of John Hiatt, Beausoleil and Garrison Starr -- is the perfect refuge for this recovering major-label artist.

Mullins' pleasantly smoky voice is warm as ever on opener "Blue As You" (co-written by fellow Thorns Sweet and Droge) as he offers beguiling images of "underwater daydreams" and impressionistic lines like: "I like my daylight to be silver / I like my night skies to be blue." "Beautiful Wreck," a natural choice for the album's first single, is a driving full-band number that still manages to keep Mullins' acoustic up front, complemented by shimmering mandolin. It's a winning track that carries inevitable echoes of Soul's Core standouts like "Shimmer" and "Lullaby."

From there things get more and more diverse, as Mullins winds his way through classicist acoustic folk ("Cold Black Heart," a first-person love triangle story-song), gospel-tinged roots-rock ("Faith"), road songs ("Alaska"), love songs ("Kelly's Song"), lilting folk-pop ("Find Love") and churning, soaring electric folk-blues ("All Fall Down"). The mostly sparse, organic arrangements put Mullins' voice up front where it belongs, carrying songs like "Homemade Wine" with his deceptively laconic, deeply expressive phrasing.

9th Ward Pickin' Parlor was recorded in pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and has a dusky, downhome vibe reflected in its title. There weren't any revelatory "wow" moments on this album for me, but it's a consistently well-crafted, diverse and entertaining listen that feels a lot like a homecoming. Welcome back, Shawn.

Rating: B+

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© 2006 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 Vanguard Records, and is used for informational purposes only.