Shawn Mullins is best, and in some circles only, remembered for 1998’s “Lullaby”, a growly, early-dusk-of-the-soul narrative told from the stage of the generally inhospitable L.A. music scene. It was a pretty killer, hungry track—disconnected, rambling, diet-Tom Waits verses into a nice, cathartic chorus that was sticky enough for karaoke night. It was also, as is often the case with such things, almost entirely non-representative of the rest of his stuff.
By and large, said material—which he has self-produced for quite a while, considering “Lullaby” hailed from his eighth self-produced album (and, eventually, first for Columbia)—is often sweet, meat-and-taters rock-pop with a twist of folk, which, as is also often the case, its greatest strength and the biggest reason for its relative anonymity (Google’s No. 1-ranked Mullins “official site” is a boarded-up storehouse of broken links, but Mullins did find some success with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge in the twangy collective the Thorns). Jean-jacketed heartland-sounding fellas, even those with an above-average grasp of hooks and images like Mullins, just aren’t rock stars these days. Sigh. Maybe if they planted more diamonds in their teeth.
As such, what’s a guy to do but turn a little introspective and rootsy? Mullins’ new “Ninth Ward Pickin’ Parlor” (named for the now-lost New Orleans home studio where most of the record was cut) certainly won’t shatter any sales projections. But if all you know of Mullins is that he did that rockabye song, it’ll surprise you—it’s a solid and pleasing and often ear-opening acoustic-based set, owing on first listen to Middle 1990s Big Head Todd / Toad the Wet Sprocket School of Lightly Jammy Pop Rock (which really needs to do something about its name), but with plenty of eventual off-ramps from the main road to reward repeated spins.
The best such exit is “Cold Black Heart”, which best justifies that Crescent City shout-out for two reasons: one, it sounds not unlike a Cajun house party, and two, it’s a dandy of a murder ballad. Over an acoustic front-porch stomp of banjo and hand drums, Mullins weaves a tale of black love—“Maggie was my true love, the only kiss I knew,” Mullins drawls, before his story “takes a turn… I wasn’t fair young Maggie’s only lover, I did learn.” Three guesses what happens next.
Most of “Ninth Ward” was crafted in that acoustic basis, which makes up for what it lacks in novelty with sonically reliable and often quite pleasing results. The standard-sounding first single “Beautiful Wreck” is about as straight-on as a base hit up the middle and verges a little too close to Hootie country for comfort, but that depends, I suppose, on your views regarding Hootie. Mullins’ voice is stepped up too; he gently drops his tenor into a weary swoon on the pretty “Faith”. Latin guitars decorate the lightly melancholy “Homemade Wine”, with its perfectly accessible and dust-bowl worthy lyrics: “The North wind, she sings to me a love song.” All that sort of thing.
Much of “Ninth Ward” takes twists and turns you’ll see coming a mile down the boulevard—the choruses swell when they’re supposed to, the guitars are right up front and the bridges arrive at all the right times. (The cover of “House of the Rising Sun”, meanwhile, is a little obvious, but, hey, he’s conjuring up folk moods and paying tribute to New Orleans, so what the hey). And besides, not everyone’s in an Antony and the Johnsons mood all the time, right? As heartland rock goes, it’s far more rewarding and refreshing to take in Mullins’ frill-free brand than schtick-thick and more commercially dominant kinds like Nickelback’s. Mullins may still qualify to the bulk of folks as a one-hitter, but the nicely surprising “Ninth Ward” casts him again as a guy who deserves better.