Beneath The Velvet Sun
Columbia Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/06/2003
Sometimes I just don't get you people. Maybe it was the whole millennium thing distracting everybody or something. Maybe it was criminally poor promotion by the labels involved. But the year 2000 probably set a modern record for "Most Really Good Albums That Hardly Anybody Bought". In a just universe, bestsellers that year would have included The Jayhawks' Smile, Fastball's The Harsh Light of Day, and this, Shawn Mullins' sophomore try as a major-label bonus baby.
The Mullins backstory is the stuff of legend. Ten years of coffeehouse gigs and self-published acoustic CDs led up to Mullins' 1998 indie album Soul's Core. Then one day some bright fellow at a big Atlanta station took a chance on the local guy and threw "Lullaby" on the playlist. Boom: regional hit single, major label signing, national hit, platinum album, etc., etc.
The inevitable big-budget follow-up album, however, may have been doomed from the start by short-sighted label execs. Seamless as Beneath The Velvet Sun might appear on first listen, it's actually a two-part affair. The nine-song core of the album was recorded in Atlanta and co-produced by Mullins and Anthony J. Resta. It's a restless affair, veering from the edgy, literate folk that had been Mullins' trademark as an undiscovered regional artist ("Yellow Dog Song") to airy, atmospheric rock ("North On 95," "Santa Fe") to a soaring piano-and-strings ballad co-written with his wife ("We Run"). The highlight of this set is a funked-up, temperature-heightening duet between Mullins and very special guest Shelby Lynne on the grinding, memorable "I Know."
The first four songs, however, were apparently recorded after Columbia decided they didn't hear a single (read: a "Lullaby" clone) among Mullins' initial set. So, they dragged him out to LA to record a few follow-up tracks with Julian Raymond, hit-making producer for, ironically enough, Fastball. The results were strong, including a pair of highly melodic pop-rock tunes (the clever "Amy's Eyes" and the unremarkable yet pretty "Everywhere I Go") and - hey, folks, there it is - a name-dropping, spoken-verse-over-a-hip-hop-beat, "Lullaby"-like piece of Mullins magic called "Up All Night." It was the perfect follow-up to "Lullaby" - so, naturally, the label chose "Everywhere I Go" as the first single. (As Casey Stengel famously said, "Doesn't anybody know how to play this here game?")
Ironically, the fourth song of the Raymond set, and quite possibly the best on the album, is a stirring, largely acoustic anthem to personal integrity called "Something To Believe In." The fact that it was recorded under pressure from the label to conform to their creative tastes is about as close to perfect irony as you're likely to encounter in your local record store, and doubtless lost on those whom you suspect it was aimed at.
But I've dwelled too long already on the circumstances surrounding this ill-fated album. The essential information here is this: Shawn Mullins has a remarkable voice equally capable of rumbly, rough-edged lows and billowing high notes; a terrific ear for melody; and a fiction writer's touch with character details. This is a superb set of songs that is compromised only by Mullins' apparent desire to please the people who took his gentle, idiosyncratic music and tried to make a quick buck off it. Don't hold against him the fact that the label chose for the first single the only somewhat weightless, predictable song on the entire album. There's a ton of good music on here that's worthwhile either for the long-time Mullins fan or the casual listener intrigued by artfully conceived, highly melodic singer-songwriter material.
Like the Jayhawks, like Fastball, Mullins found himself in 2002 once again without major-label backing. In the case of Fastball, the result has been a premature breakup. The Jayhawks have soldiered on at half-strength, working as a largely acoustic trio. The answer has been simpler for Mullins, the once-and-again troubadour. He simply shrugged off the disappointing sales of this album, continued performing solo and producing others' albums, and is now hard at work on a fascinating collaboration with fellow outside-the-mainstream songsmiths Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. Hint: buy their album. The majors probably won't touch it, which will be your first clue that it's really good.