Light You Up
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/31/2012
It’s funny what will set you off. I have a hundred good reasons to praise this album, and only one not to—but I’m going to rant about the latter for a bit before I get to the former.
Shawn Mullins is a folk-rock troubadour of long standing, having cut his teeth on the local scene in his hometown of Atlanta, self-releasing a string of albums before signing with Columbia and abruptly hitting it big with his 1998 single “Lullaby.” The latter song, recorded for his major-label debut Soul’s Core, grew from his experiences in Hollywood when he was still touring solo out of the back of a van.
Fast-forward 12 years and five albums (the last four on more singer-songwriter-friendly indie label Vanguard). The kickoff song on 2010’s Light You Up is called “California,” and it’s is quite “Lullaby”-like in its spoken verses, anecdotal storytelling style, and swelling, propulsive choruses. I would like it quite a bit if not for one major flaw: the place that he describes in the song is *not* California.
The place he describes in the song is Los Angeles—or at least, an absurdly clichéd “Hotel California” fantasy version of it: “Fate would take them to LA County / And get them stuck in a traffic jam… Backstage at the Hollywood Bowl / They got the house in Topanga Canyon / Partied at the Viper Room… Well you see them down on the Sunset Strip / Trying’ so hard to be so hip / Manhattan Beach to Malibu / It’s all about the ocean view…” And “the 101”? An LA affectation that no self-respecting Californian living north of Santa Barbara would be caught dead using? C’mon, Shawn.
For someone who was born in San Francisco, has spent 44 of my 49 years living in Northern and Central California, and has never lived closer than 250 miles to the greater Los Angeles megalopolis (nor wanted to), this song is like a thousand fingernails on a thousand chalkboards. The idea that Los Angeles equals California is as ridiculous and, frankly, insulting as the idea that Miami equals Florida, or Anchorage equals Alaska. It’s lazy stereotyping of the kind that I thought a normally intelligent songwriter like Shawn Mullins would be above.
Worse yet, Mullins actually writes this song twice in one album and gets it wrong both times. “Tinseltown” feels like a gentler, mellower rewrite of “California,” but the chorus “I don’t want to go downtown tonight / The neon burns just a little too bright” draws repeated laughs, since anyone who has spent any time at all in the area knows that downtown LA at night is a ghostly cluster of empty office buildings. There is no neon in downtown LA, and in fact no reason anyone would ever go there after dark at all.
Let’s face it, despite claiming “I’m over tinseltown,” Mullins seems to have a major fixation with a fantasy version of LA that exists mostly in his head. What’s that about, dude?
Anyhow… my NorCal native’s visceral reaction to “California” should not cloud the issue for the non-NorCal listener. Light You Up is in every other respect a fine outing from the dependably appealing Mullins, full of artful musings (“Murphy’s Song”), sweet love songs (“I Knew A Girl”), and playful blues-folk (the title track). There’s a comfortable, dusky intimacy to Mullins’ voice that draws you in again and again, even when he’s busy showing off his range on numbers like “No Blue Sky” where he swerves back and forth between his earthy baritone and the soaring falsetto he often deploys to great effect.
The latter tune also underscores a key part of Mullins’ appeal; his observational songs can be rather sharp-tongued and sardonic, and he does a convincing blues, but his outlook is fundamentally sunny. Consider the chorus to “No Blue Sky”: “There’s no blue sky in my town lately / Everybody looks at the ground / I been distracted and no doubt crazy / But the sun never looked so pretty goin’ down.”
The other musical face of Mullins is the acoustic country-folk traditionalist, who comes to the forefront for two songs. “The Ghost Of Johnny Cash” is a well-framed tribute to The Man in Black (“Until I’m raisin’ hell in heaven / With the ghost of Johnny Cash”) from the pen of frequent Mullins co-writer Chuck Cannon, while “Catoosa County” is a Civil War historical narrative through the verses before Mullins neatly pivots the song at the chorus into an indictment of all war.
Mullins’ innate optimism dominates the last third of the album, as he seesaws from the snappy electric blues-funk of “You Make It Better” (“It’s all right, life is good / You make it better”) to the acoustic economic blues of “Can’t Remember Summer,” and back again for the closer, in which “Love Will Find A Way.” Indeed.
In sum, for this fine if momentarily misguided effort, I am pleased to award Mr. Shawn Mullins an enthusiastic B+ and a standing offer to show him around the 97% of the state of California that appears to have escaped his attention up until now.