Thom Yorke, the National, Mercury Rev and a host of others contribute to this tribute album for a little-known singer-songwriter
Mark Mulcahy isn’t much of a recognized name. The New Haven musician was part of an indie rock group called Miracle Legion in the 1980s, before I was really listening to indie rock, really. He’s had a small career as a solo artist since the 1990s, and settled into that role of musicians’ musician. Which really meant that, despite the quality of the music he wrote, he wasn’t going to be heard widely. Hopefully, Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy will trigger some listeners to go back and rediscover his music. The value of the release is both as an introduction and a benefit for a guy whose passion hasn’t necessarily translated into a consistent income.
And while this album doesn’t have the impact of Dark Was the Night or the range of Score! 20 Years of Merge Records, it nicely fills out what has been an unusually fertile year for indie compilations. With contributions from the National, Ben Kweller, and Elvis Perkins (along with 18 others), it’s a substantial release and an excellent overview of Mulcahy’s musical contribution. The shadows of Dylan and Buckley hang behind Mulcahy’s songs, which are of the verse-chorus variety, but borrow liberally from both Buckley’s soul and Dylan’s poetry. The results is neither cloyingly artistic nor middle-of-the-road alternative rock, but something personable, likeable. It’s no-fuss rock, with words that hold a potent impact. Sung in an impassioned plea by Michael Stipe, or Josh Rouse, or Hayden’s Paul Hayden Dessler, they come alive. “I know that I will be all right”, goes Stipe’s rendition of “Everything’s Coming Undone”, a lovely song puffed up on a background of droning guitars.
No doubt the most widely publicized entry in the compilation is also the opening track, Thom Yorke’s rendition of “All for the Best”. It’s a gorgeous song, and a gorgeous arrangement that pools the best of both artists. Yorke brings an ascetic rigor to the song through his rolling-forward drum machine arrangement (those sharp, percussive punches that muscle in midway through the song are the most aggressive thing we’ve heard from Yorke’s solo material). Mulcahy’s simpler structure and peaceful chorus give Yorke a destination, and an anchor. But it’s not the only highlight on the album. The National are haunted and expressive as always on “Ashamed of the Story I Told”; Frank Turner wisely lets the words do the work in the astounding “The Quiet One”; Hayden layers voices Bon Iver-style in a jaunty/heartbreaking version of “Happy Birthday Yesterday”. Each are impressive, not only for the competent performances, but for the way Mulcahy’s relaxed vibe seems to permeate every note.
If there’s a complaint to be made about the release, it’s a commonly-heard criticism of compilations. Understandably, given the charity-for-the-artist nature of the project, as many of the contributions as possible have been included. You just can’t avoid a chunk of filler. In addition to the 21 songs on this album, there are apparently a further 20 covers of Mulcahy’s songs to be released digitally, and which are as yet unheard. That some of these make less of an impression is understandable. It’s enough, really, that Ciao My Shining Star offers those little discoveries that excite us -- a new, old artist, who’s pretty good. Pretty good indeed.
Listen out for the title track, performed here by the Unbelievable Truth. The original’s a slightly obtuse, falsetto-wail of a song, almost too emotional to be approached. Unbelievable Truth make it a straightforward anthem (Band of Horses, you feel, could have had a great time with the song), but listen out for the appellation -- ‘Miss Popcorn’ -- as lovely a moment as you’re likely to hear this year. Thank Mark Mulcahy for that.