Musicians possessing dedication like Chris Murphy are rare. Most professional musicians, rightly, approaching their work like any careerist – it is a job, first and foremost, though perhaps a “dream job” for many, that requires a sense of perspective to flourish as an ongoing business concern. For someone like Chris Murphy, however, a musical career involves different equations. This isn’t merely some craft or a trade Murphy plies in order to keep his lights on or gain notoriety. Instead, each of the fourteen songs on his latest album Red Mountain Blues echoes the inner behest that men and women like Chris Murphy respond to their whole lives. It is an immaculately produced affair that highlights the individual elements present in Murphy’s compositions with a generous and attentive ear.
The instrumental title song opens things, but it’s the album’s second song, “Dirt Time”, where Red Mountain Blues really takes off. Murphy’s songwriting has a well-studied and sharp ear for where lyrics and vocal inflections alike should fall in traditional structures like this and the ensuing familiarity for the listener never sounds cheap or forced. “Black Roller” has a similar effect. This song is much more driven by the triple instrumental attack of banjo, guitar, and violin vying for melodic supremacy, but this tense pull between instruments is one of the album’s hallmarks. “Kitchen Girl” is a sharply observed character piece that shows off more of Murphy’s all-encompassing songwriting chops and its follow-up, “Cast Iron”, is a humorously appropriate instrumental to sequence in such a way. Many of the instrumentals, in some ways, are indistinguishable from the lyric driven tracks because they are so melodic and practically beg for fuller treatment. Track after track, Murphy shows why he is one of the best songwriters in popular music and unjustly flying under the mainstream radar.
“Walt Whitman”, however, is one of the album’s best songs and an instrumental. It benefits from the lack of lyric thanks to the superb and unspoken atmosphere it creates that suggests much but, ultimately, leaves much up to the imagination. The song “Dig for One More Day” takes on a much more traditional note with its deliberate echoes of field songs and the wholesale adoption of its attendant imagery. It never seems to strain for effect however. The album’s second to last song, “Johnson County”, seems like an unlikely title for such a grand and windswept mini-epic. It’s arguably the finest moment on Red Mountain Blues thanks, once again, to its vivid imagination. Murphy ends Red Mountain Blues with the deceptively jaunty “The Lord Will Provide”. It’s a closing instrumental certain to tickle some listeners, but there are shadowy undercurrents that give it surprising added weight.
Red Mountain Blues is one of those impossibly solid, yet light on its feet, offerings that remind you about the pleasures of simple, straight-forward songwriting with a tasteful dollop of sophistication. Chris Murphy’s skills are refined without being inaccessible and stripped-back without ever boring the listener.
Chris Murphy - Red Mountain Blues
9 out of 10 stars.