Shawn Mullins’ “Lullaby” was the prettiest #1 hit this country has heard in some time. With its storytelling verses and perfectly gooey chorus, the song earned much deserved airplay. The story behind Mullins, though, is just as endearing as his smash tune. Over 10 years, he worked entirely independently, self-releasing eight albums, and steadily building a homegrown fan base. The First 10 Years, for the most part, documents those do-it-yourself days.
The 12 original songs here show Mullins to be a somewhat spotty songwriter. They range from his earliest efforts (1989’s “Drumming Clown,” which his father accurately compared to James Taylor) to new songs composed for recent soundtracks. The First 10 Years starts off promisingly enough with a down-home pop tune called “Lately.” The next cut (“What Is Life”) opens with some deceptively gritty guitar, but soon proves to be more of the same, albeit with more of a ‘60s rock ‘n’ soul vibe. Then comes the first misstep. “Salt Lake City 1973” is a disaster, a beatnik free-form attempt, replete with awkwardly timed organic instrumentation. Mullins manages to dig himself out of this sizable hole with “Joshua,” a reaching-genius acoustic tune about playing guitar with an old man. It is just about perfect, and the one track you really need on this CD.
After “Joshua,” proceedings on The First 10 Years lose steam real fast. Mullins rarely writes truly bad songs; rather, he tends to compose tunes that are not memorable, and thus, unessential. “Pandora,” for instance, is certainly a pleasant enough song, but it is not valuable to anyone that is not already a fan of Mullins. “Just Like Me” is simply Mullins’ baritone voice accompanied by a quiet piano. Again, it isn’t necessarily bad to listen to; it’s just a little useless. “Canyons & Caverns” and “The Dream” are embarrassingly earnest, but Mullins can certainly be forgiven for this all-too-common trait in singer/songwriters. He cannot, however, be forgiven for the awful cover of Bowie’s “Changes” that closes this collection. You just don’t mess with such a classic, and you especially don’t use a cheesy drum machine as the main source of percussion.
The First 10 Years is not a vital component of any record collection. Still, it serves its purpose, compiling a good overview of Mullins’ early career. It won’t make him any new fans, but is certainly a fine purchase if you have already been won over by Soul’s Core, his 1998 breakthrough album.