Soul's Core Revival

Shawn Mullins

Soul Carnival Records, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The special anniversary deluxe edition has been around long enough now to have its own conventions. First you re-present the original album recording in some modestly enhanced form—Remastered? Remixed? Heavily liner-noted? And then you add bonus material—outtakes, b-sides, alternate versions, demos and/or live cuts—to fill out what is typically a double-disc package with a double-disc price tag.

It’s a smart way for labels to go, in financial terms—minimal upfront cost, the demand for the music is already well-established, and once you add in enough extras the value proposition becomes attractive to nostalgic, sentimental, habitual fans like, say, me. Of course, when you’re not on a label, you can do whatever the hell you please, which is where this opening gambit connects up with Mr. Shawn Mullins.

One-time major-label bonus baby Mullins, who’s otherwise been either fully independent or on small indie labels for most of his career, saw his 1998 breakthrough album Soul’s Core turn 20 this past year and did something about it. The original album was a terrific piece of work, expanding the palette of Mullins’ folk-inclined singer-songwriter music to embrace the full spectrum of what was then in the process of becoming known as Americana, incorporating elements of rock, pop, country, blues, gospel, and even, in the flowing spoken verses of breakout hit single “Lullabye,” a touch of hip-hop.

Instead of going the increasingly customary route in commemorating the 20th anniversary of That One Big Album, though, Mullins chose his own idiosyncratic path. Soul’s Core Revival is indeed a double-disc revisitation of the album, but the label in question is Mullins’ own—he funded the album through PledgeMusic—and the original recordings are nowhere to be found (it’s possible there was an issue regarding rights to them, but I honestly don’t know and don’t care). Instead, Mullins chose to re-record the entire album in its original run order—not once, but twice.

Disc one finds Mullins reworking the original 13 tracks with his current band Soul Carnival, featuring Gerry Hansen on drums, Tom Ryan on bass, Patrick Blanchard and Davis Causey on guitar, and Radoslav Lorkovic on keys and accordion, with help from John Keane (steel guitar), Randall Bramblett (additional keys and sax), Wayne Postell (trumpet), and Michelle Malone (background vocals).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The main difference that immediately becomes evident in this return to Soul’s Core is the loose, relaxed, mature feel these versions have. Twenty years down the line, Mullins is so confident and comfortable with these songs—a number of which he’s played hundreds of times on tour in the intervening years—that he doesn’t hesitate to tinker with and expand them. “Anchored In You” adds a horn-driven intro and rich Hammond organ textures; “Gulf Of Mexico” punches up the piano and slide; Causey gooses “September In Seattle” with a pair of tight, scorching solos; and “Soul Child” dials up the gospel feel that’s always been there, which also bleeds into a reimagined “Shimmer,” buoyed by horns and a background chorus. Big single “Lullabye” is relatively unchanged, though it feels, again, more relaxed and confident than ever.

Not every experiment on disc one works. “Twin Rocks, Oregon” gets a steady-building arrangement that gradually incorporates the full band—an interesting variation from the solo acoustic original, but ironically, adding instruments and textures only dilutes the impact of the terrific lyric, a point that’s underscored each time the band drops out and lets Mullins carry the song. “Tannin’ Bed Song” adds accordion and pumps up the Hammond, muddying the arrangement of a song that’s all about the tension found in the spaces between the notes.

Disc two is the real revelation. I knew it would consist of solo acoustic renderings of each of these memorable songs. What I hadn’t anticipated when popping it in my player was that the first sound I would hear is Mullin’s deep, soothing, innately friendly voice telling the story behind each song as if he was sitting in the same room, going on for two or three minutes before beginning to play each song. He has literally made his liner notes part of this album.

So, in addition to intimate acoustic renderings of each of these tunes, you get the backstories: how Mullins wrote “Anchored In You” after nearly missing a gig in Berkeley because of two flat tires; how Joni Mitchell’s “punk flamenco” approach to playing acoustic guitar helped shape the music to “Lullaby”; how “And On A Rainy Night” was partially inspired by John Steinbeck; the answer (sort of) to whether the Maria in “Tannin’ Bed Song” is the same one who appears in his later song “Sunshine”; the origins of “The Ballad Of Billy Jo McKay” in a conversation he overheard sitting in a mom-n-pop ice cream shop in Meridien, Mississippi; and how Kris Kristofferson (author of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”) came to be a hero to two generations of Mullinses.

What’s the goal of any anniversary deluxe edition? To celebrate the music, yes, but hopefully also to expand the audience’s understanding of it, to give familiar old songs new life by offering some sort of fresh perspective on them. That’s exactly what Shawn Mullins achieves here. You only thought you knew Soul’s Core until now; with Soul’s Core Revival, Mullins invites you inside his creative process and allows you to experience these songs in a whole new way, setting a new standard for these sorts of commemorative releases.

Rating: A-

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