Kathy Muir – Second Life
There’s nothing regional about the talents of Kathy Muir. Her Scottish heritage, undoubtedly, influences her deep musical talents, but the songwriting driving an album like Second Life is more all encompassing, broader, and its roots inform it rather than dictate to it. She has largely outgrown the label Americana, but there’s still a strong cross-section of material present on the album that more than justifies it along with some other less frequently used classifications. In the end, this is just fine music, honed to a fine point both musically and lyrically, and such arts need no labels except for the merchants. Muir is certainly a member of the singer/songwriter school, but her sensibilities have a stronger literary bent than many working within the same arena.
“Lucky One” is a rather traditional offering from a singer/songwriter. It’s a variation on the relationship gone bad formula and pleasingly remains hazy enough on specifics that listeners can take away from it virtually anything they desire. “Better Man”, however, is the first indication that we’re working with something much different than the garden variety singer/songwriter – this is much more complicated fare than the typical meditation on a failing relationship and Muir perfectly captures subtle character dynamics with a minimum of words. It’s an excellent choice to alternate those opening songs with a stripped back blues like “Simply That” and the song title contributes to the feeling that it might have been quite a conscious decision. Muir does a superb job with the bluesy strains of this track without straining too hard and shows unflappable confidence through each line. “Honey Child” has some mild traditional country music influences, but it’s much more in a light pop vein than perhaps any other song on the album once the full arrangement begins. The acoustic guitar and vocal opening the song is extraordinarily beautiful.
The lockstep jaunt her collaborators achieve on “Stop Messin’ Me Around” is a highlight on the album and keeps Muir’s vocal bouncing and full of fire. There’s an almost rockabilly feel to the way that the band chases the song and it conveys more raw energy than probably any single track on Second Life. Things noticeably settle on “I Want to Lay Down”, a gently yearning love song that offers a deep glimpse into the beautiful folk textures she can pull from her heart. The urgency returns some in “Born by the Water” and Muir delivers a lyric here that surely rates as one of the finest of the eleven songs. The music has surprising simplicity, but Muir never fails to subvert that seeming simplicity at critical times for effect.
Another of those remarkable moments when Muir’s songwriting raises more than a notch above her contemporaries is “Never Felt like a Woman”. It’s a remarkable confession of vulnerability phrased with careful feeling and pinnacles of unbridled emotion. Second Life ends with the one-two punch of “Troubled Town” and the title song. The first is Muir alone with a piano and it has a powerhouse emotional impact. Muir carefully weaves her voice around the piano playing in an attempt to make their two voices reflections of one and succeeds. The finale brings her together with a broad orchestral backing that she matches up with quite well. It’s likely the album’s best lyric and vocal in many ways and, like elsewhere throughout Second Life, pours every bit of herself into the song.
9 out of 10 stars