It's always a pleasant surprise when one encounters the rare debut artist who bursts onto the scene with fully crafted songs that sport infectious melodies alongside intelligent lyrics. Such is the case with the talented Scott Murray and his mellow initial collection Stutter. Here are 10 impressive songs with clean, layered soundscapes courtesy of producer John Mallory and engineer John Mark Painter (Ben Folds Five). Murray writes some of the songs himself, and co-writes others with guitar players Chris Donohue and John Mallory.
Right from the get-go, there's a refreshing sense of intelligence and candor to the music. It's fairly obvious Murray isn't your typical insular musician-type. Rather, Scott has worked as a volunteer in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and the jungles of Papua, New Guinea, helping to build schools, hospitals, and bridges when not spending time with local orphans. He translates some of this worldly experience into his songwriting, and it also is evident in his occasionally plaintive vocals.
For the most part, this is simple and sweet listening, acoustic-based guitar pop that goes down easily. That most of these pleasant songs come with intelligent messages is an added bonus. Hit-maker Mallory has assembled an impressive team of Nashville musicians to accompany Murray on this debut. Ken Lewis and Sean McWilliams share drum duties, Jamie Kenney handles keyboards, Andrew Ramsey (and Painter himself) add electric guitars, and Darrin Brumley, Laura Donohue, Rebecca Brown and Diana Beach divide and share background vocals.
The disc opens with "Dry Bones", a lovely melody enhanced by sweet instrumentation and harmonies, but more importantly, with meaningful lyrics that actually follow the parameters of meter and rhyme. Murray wows me with his simple ways of capturing the spirit of belief beyond faded hope that there are chances yet to come: "Brittle dry dull as sin / I'm suffocating beneath this skin / this thread of hope is wearing thin / but it keeps me hanging on / Heaven come and give to me / a heart of flesh and eyes to see / from this wasteland rescue me / before I'm too far gone."
Painter uses accordion accents to give a continental flavor to "Breathe into Me". Again, there's a prayer-like reverence to Murray's God-inspired lyrics, but they don't seem so heavy within the context of the dulcet music: "I've heard there's room for heaven inside a human heart / but mine is full of broken toys and ugly modern art / I mean it's one hell of a rummage sale as anyone can see / but if you'll only take it, you can have it all for free / Breathe into me / these lifeless conceptions need to taste reality." The worldly beats that drive "Freedom's Chains" recall India or parts of the Middle East. There's an exotic air to this poignant message of how we often are blinded by our own freedoms, and again, a pervasive intelligence to the lyrical phrasings ("love's last gasp a wistful whisper").
It's back to friendly Americana sounds with "Shine". Here Murray takes on love, and its contrary nature: "Love can blind you, love can make you see / love can bind you, love can set you free / love can remind you of who you want to be / if love's light finds you, let it shine on me." There's a nice Bacharach-style horn accompaniment here and a warm accordion accent as well.
In the uber-catchy "Gun to Your Head", Murray serves up a Dylan-esque take in censuring those who choose to play the blame game rather than accept the responsibility for the state they're in and the choices they make in not doing what they want. Something about this song's vocals reminds me of George Usher.
Perhaps the standout song in this very good collection is the political gem "Belgrade Station", wherein Murray exposes the hypocrisy of our foreign involvements: "For the sake of democracy / we create a bloody tragedy / because it's good for the economy of the land of the free." His descriptions of these moments in a Yugoslavian summer are spot-on, chilling and eye-opening.
"Love for the Sake of Love" is another well-informed lyric couched within a pleasantly disarming melody, this one taking on the free feelings following the "death of love."
Murray (along with Donohue and Mallory) has a knack for creating compelling aural soundscapes, songs that are well crafted and built for the long haul. Such is the case with the lengthy ballad "Long Way Down," which again finds Murray in semi-religious mode, espousing a Job-like philosophical stance, maintaining that sometimes you have to lose it all, head all the way down, before you can find hope and the light of heaven. It's a noble position -- solidly against materialism -- and one that Murray no doubt has experienced first-hand.
One of the strongest songs here is the infectious "In the Name of Love". Murray's talking about the love of God, but his superior lyrics can be applied to human love as well (for the most part): "You broke like the morning / woke me from my dreams of who I am / gave me a glimpse of what I could be / The vision has faded now like a dying sun into the sea / and I can't remember the beauty I have seen."
The album closes with the tribal rhythms of "Leaving the Night". Once again, Murray's message of redemption through finding God's light is barely cloaked in clever words -- he leaves the dungeon of dark desire and ultimately becomes "lost in your love; I am found."
While some of these messages seem a bit heavy-handed, they really seem less so in the context of the remarkably pleasant music and the extraordinary arrangements. John Mallory and Chris Donohue display a deft production hand, exhibiting a strong sense of what makes a song work well. Further, Scott Murray's innate intelligence makes the lyrics work on levels far beyond the obvious "Love God" preaching.
Here is a man who has been many places, seen special things, and has the talent to translate those experiences into well-fashioned songs. Contrary to its title, Stutter is a smooth, confident debut of superbly executed lush and mellow sounds from a talented singer/songwriter who comes home from traveling the world and, in the studio, delivers the musical goods.