Reflections on the ’90s and the upcoming Shawn Mullins record
“Well, he was from a small town in Northern Mississippi/She was raised on the Puget Sound, a third generation hippie/Fate would take them to L.A. County and get them stuck in a traffic jam/An El Camino and a red Trans Am.”
“Wait a minute,” I think to myself, “I’ve heard this guy before.” There was no picture that came with the advance copy of the CD and I didn’t read the entire press release past his name which sounded vaguely familiar, but which I ultimately couldn’t place.
“Her stereo was blarin’ Dylan, The Bootleg Sessions,” he continues, “and oh ‘The Times they Are a-Changin” made a pretty good impression/She looked over and caught him smilin’ under a California setting sun/They fell in love on the 101.”
At that point I turned off the stereo and began softly singing to myself the feel-good hit of 11 years ago: “She grew up with the children of the stars/In the Hollywood hills and the boulevard/Her parents threw big parties everyone was there/They hung out with folks like Dennis Hopper, Bob Seger, Sonny and Cher.”
Ah, the ’90s. Now that was one hell of a decade.
The ’90s was the golden age of basketball. Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Shaq, Malone, Barkley, Ewing, Mourning, Hardaway, Robinson, Olajuwan, Miller and on and on. All gone now except Shaq. We used to stand in the driveway where there was a hoop set up and pretend we were Mike. Even stuck our tongues out as we drove to the basket as if maybe that was the secret.
It was the golden age of video games with too many Super Nintendo carts I won’t bore you by listing.
It was a time when Nickelodeon was still showing decent programming like Ren and Stimpy, Doug, Rugrats, or All That and hadn’t gotten into the pop music business yet. Not to mention MTV shows like Beavis and Butt-head or even “real” shows like Home Improvement.
And oh yeah, as I recall the President may not have known how to keep his dick in his pants, but he did know how to keep Americans from dying in wars against countries that have never attacked us.
But what about the music? Isn’t that what we’re here for?
Well, back in those days I spent countless hours devouring everything in my parents’ record collection (now mine). “New music is crap,” I would commonly say back in those post-Cobain days. Of course, I now know that wasn’t true and that there has always been great music below the surface, but Portsmouth had two radio stations (Top 40 and country) and the internet was still very much a luxury in my rural southern Ohio community.
So I listened to classic rock, classic country, classic pop, anything old I could find, but I didn’t entirely ignore the pop scene either. I liked Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Goo Goo Dolls, and, hell, I could even listen to Smash Mouth if I had to. I recognized that none of those bands were quite up to the CCR standards, but they weren’t bad. And, yes, I salivated over Britney Spears back in ’98 whenever she came on MTV although I would usually hit the mute button as well.
Then in the midst of that came Shawn Mullins who took his song “Lullaby” all the way to number one back in ’99. At the time, I thought it was a cool song, certainly much better than the Backstreet Boys, and I definitely dug the line where he said L.A. is “kinda like Nashville with a tan,” but I never actually bought it and probably ended up spending my money on a Bad Company or Aerosmith compilation.
So time went by and I forgot the name and within a year went on to discover first pre-rock American roots music and then the Americana scene. By then, I couldn’t have cared less about Britney Spears, regardless of how hot she was, or anybody else on the Top 40. And Shawn Mullins apparently moved on as well (“Somewhere out there,” he sings in one track on his new album, “someone’s living my old dreams/I hope they’re happy, I wouldn’t trade for anything”). He’s released a few albums, one that was even reviewed in No Depression, but he somehow slipped under my radar. At least until Vanguard sent me a copy of his upcoming album Light You Up, which will be released on October 12th.
I’ve already quoted large sections from the opening track “California” to you, but it is easily the best on the record and is reminiscent of Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” both in spirit and musically.
The next song and first single is the title track. It’s the “sex song” that every great rock album should have and it is definitely a good choice for a single…if this was still 1999 and he was trying to follow “Lullaby.” But in this age which music is even more heavily processed, Auto-Tuned, and catered to the pre-teen crowd than ever before, I doubt if it makes a dent. Which is ok; as we all know, great music is rarely commercially successful these days.
But even better is “Murphy’s Song,” a country-flavored track about the songwriter’s transition to a family man and accepting something less than superstardom without “feel[ing] like I’m missing out.” He follows this with the gorgeous R&B ballad “No Blue Skies,” which could have a shot of being a hit on the modern rock charts. Could, but doubtful.
Next up is one of my favorite tracks on the album: the beautiful acoustic ballad “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.” To be honest, I lost the press release but I do know that this one is written by somebody else. Regardless it is an amazing, gospel-like performance full of dark imagery and lyrics that I, as a mega-fan of The Man in Black, can really relate to. “Some sinners need their saints to be survivors of the fall,” Mullins sings, “‘Cause when you’re down here on your knees, most angels look too tall/So I’ll just live this life out, dust to dust and ash to ash/With my guide from the other side, the ghost of Johnny Cash.”
“Tinseltown” is another great California rocker with some great electric piano, while “I Knew a Girl” once again slows things down with a nice acoustic arrangement. Then comes the Civil War ballad “Catoosa County,” which sounds like a traditional folk number, but is clearly an allegory for today’s world with lines about how “the old men find a way to send the young men off to war.”
On the other hand, “You Make it Better” doesn’t work too well. The lyrics are formulaic and the blues-rock arrangement is well done and well-performed but the style simply plays against Mullins’ strengths. The one clunker on an otherwise perfect album.
The album closes with “Can’t Remember Summer,” a great country ballad about the state of the economy, and the R&B track “Love Will Find a Way,” which sounds as if it came straight out of Motown in 1965, complete with horns.
Overall this album made me nostalgic for the ’90s and saddened by the state of affairs that lets a guy like this have a number one hit and then slip through the cracks because he doesn’t fit into any marketing niches. But he’s still making great music that you should hear and this album will fit very well on your shelf next to Full Moon Fever. Easily one of the year’s best.
And now for old times’ sake, here’s “Lullaby.”