Sport Murphy: Uncle

[21 July 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

Mike Murphy, former lead singer of the folk-punk group the Skels, isn’t really keen on the music industry as a rule. After releasing two great albums in Willoughby and Magic Beans, Murphy, or “Sport” as is his nickname, had some down time. But the events of 11 September 2001 made it all the more difficult. A nephew that Murphy considered a brother was one of the New York City firefighters who perished saving thousands of lives. Peter Vega’s body was found on New Year’s Day 2002. “This album is my inadequate gift to him, in memory of all our happy years together, from the bottom of a shattered heart,” Murphy writes in the liner notes. The 22 songs on the album “speak” to his lost relative, and while some of the tracks cannot be deemed breathtaking, the backdrop of the album certainly puts it into a vivid and tragic perspective.

“No Fair”, opening up with a folk-like singer-songwriter narrative, moves nicely into a certain memory of his nephew. “Congregation filled with god’s love”, he sings as he recollects over a percussion and violin driven chorus. The flow of the song is its strongpoint as Murphy gives the impression he needs to drown his sorrows somewhere nearby and not from a higher power. “Johnny Lightning” has audio clips, perhaps of his nephew talking, before moving out. Some of the songs may not make any sense to some, but this isn’t an album that will work on different levels. “The Lost Children” contains more of an edge to it, resembling at times Ryan Adams with far more acoustic grit. Definitely an early favorite.

Of course, with the volume of songs presented, some are quaint instrumentals or interludes. “In Other Words, Never” is such an example, coming off like Tom Waits before an audio tape, perhaps a conversation between Murphy and Vega, enters the proceedings. “The Late Days of Summer” has some beautiful and touching gems in the lyrics, particularly the opening “Suddenly, suddenly gone / It’s bugles and bagpipes to send them along / Strong taken down by these piss-proud swine”, Murphy says as the song’s Celtic overtones can be heard. While there are been many responses to 9/11, few contain the rage and feeling of helplessness Murphy conveys. It’s brilliant! The oddest track is the seventies funk and guitar oozing from the rap of “Bird in the House”, which resembles They Might Be Giants on crack.

Murphy rarely creates lyrics that don’t ring true, with “Miles Across the Sea” delivering more of the same. Featuring a string section that works well with the rougher tone in Murphy’s voice, coming close to fellow New York band “The National”. What follows is quite a departure, a pop-oriented Beach Boy sound on “Paul LaGrutta”. With backing harmonies and a summer feeling, it seems a bit out of place, but is a lightweight interlude from the heavy theme. “Bad Guest” is another highlight as Murphy mentions Cole Porter in a classic Lou Reed style. “I’d get along with everyone but none of them are here”, he sings over small talk and mingling from a party setting.

The album jumps style throughout as “Such a Beautiful Sight” mixes a roadhouse harmonica with some ska flavorings. Some pieces though don’t quite work, whether it’s the half-thought of “Played By Linda Blair” or the ambling “Shoo Fly Shoo”. As the record reaches the homestretch, the songs don’t carry the same weight musically. “Sleepy River” resembles a quick one-take effort about a meeting that will one day be realized. It’s perhaps one of the barren tracks here, having all the parts of an early Walt Disney cartoon lullaby. Rage by now has been replaced by melancholy as “The Sound of Her Voice” has a certain sense of resignation to it. Another shining moment is the slow dance tempo to “The Doray Waltz”, which, er, possesses a waltz quality to it.

The bar closing “Everybody’s Gone” is decent but relies more on effects of ice cubes hitting glass bottoms and drinks being poured instead of the gist of the song. “I can’t believe you’re gone bro, I can’t believe you’re gone”, Murphy sings through puffs, swigs and sniffles. “The Clang of the Yankee Reaper” ends the album, a minute of youthful innocent laughter. Adorably depressing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/murphysport-uncle/