Scott Mulvahill’s new album, Himalayas, opens with a spare little tune titled “Begin Againers.” The song opens with an a cappella chorus — with Mulvahill singing harmony vocals behind his melody lines — before he adds softly emphatic bass lines, opening the song into a soaring sonic space in which he explores the freedom that the interplay of musical notes gives him. He’s inventive on this tune, setting its theme in the opening and then playing off of it in several directions as the song proceeds, especially in the bridge. “Begin Againers” showcases Mulvahill’s musical genius, for in this opening song he’s a one-man band, following the musical paths where they lead him and carrying us with him along the way.
For five years, Mulvahill played upright bass with Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder. One of the most acclaimed bassists in Nashville, he’s played with artists ranging from Emmylou Harris and Sierra Hull to Peter Frampton and Brad Paisley. During his years with Skaggs, Mulvahill started writing songs on bass, discovering that he could weave his vocals around the bass lines even as those notes provided the counterpoint and harmony for his vocals. The first song he wrote was “Fighting for the Wrong Side,” which appears on this new album. The tune opens with gently echoing bass lines over which float his high tenor vocals, which mimic the bass notes in some lines. In this song, Mulvahill’s vocals and his bass are the only instruments, but it sounds as if we’re listening to a chamber ensemble that’s been joined by a vocalist.
On “Gold Plated Lie,” Mulvahill turns in an urgent, scampering, rock and roll performance. The musical structure of the song resembles Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” and the keyboards on the song’s bridge and in the introduction mimic the phrases of Deep Purple’s “Lazy.” The song starts slowly with the keys, but it soon gallops off, following propulsive guitars and skittering drums. On the chorus, Mulvahill’s voice matches the guitar and bass lines note-for-note, which lends the song its can’t-tell-you-the-truth-about-life-fast-enough character. The dynamic nature of the tune mirrors the fear of being taken in by a glittering falsehood, the convincing nature of deceit, the regret that accompanies the sinking feeling that you’ve made a deal with evil: “your soul is traded / for my gold-plated lie.”
“Sweet Symsonia” opens with Mulvahill’s a cappella and then slowly blossoms like a full honeysuckle flower into a sweetly layered ode to the small Kentucky town of Symsonia. “Homeless,” Mulvahill’s version of the Paul Simon song, opens with Mulvahill creating a spacious room for Alanna Boudreau’s lead vocals to enter. The gospel-inflected tune features Mulvahill calling out a line with Boudreau responding; the vocals float over a reggae tune that dances along Mulvahill’s bass lines. “Homeless” illustrates Mulvahill’s ability to layer instruments in the service of discovering and showcasing the core of a song.
Everybody needs to hear Scott Mulvahill and his way with his bass, vocals, and songwriting, and Himalayas offers us the opportunity to listen to the astonishing range — from free jazz to rock to gospel to chamber music — that Mulvahill covers in his music.