Chris Murphy – Surface to Air
Some musicians sound like craftsman. Everything they write and play hangs together in a certain way and the individual components work smoothly in concert with each other. Like a storyboard for a movie or illustrated publication, you can see how the artist has laid out their creation. Other musicians, however, sound like conduits. They sound like music spills out of them, unbidden, unconscious, and any advanced techniques they consciously command only aid in the shaping of that initial flood. The smart artists only shape it so much. Applying too much technique or over thinking anything artistic drains it bloodless and ultimately reduces it to an academic exercise. Chris Murphy knows these things. Each of the fourteen tracks on his latest solo album Surface to Air embodies the second mode of working described above. Murphy’s lyrics and exceptional violin often sound inspired, overflowing with passion, but in command of a skill set that gives him the ability to refine his results.
The album begins with the straightforward country rocker “Sailing the World Alone”. There’s an easy going, weary resignation stamping itself on the song’s mood and underscored by an elegiac Murphy vocal. His violin, essentially, takes on the role a lead guitarist might occupy in this configuration, but there’s no one spotlight moment in this song when Murphy steps out to shine instrumentally. Such restraint is to his credit. The title song, “Surface to Air”, finds a deep groove early on and tightly rides it until the end. Murphy’s singing makes great use of that groove and his voice seamlessly entwines with the instruments. The album’s first instrumental is entitled “The Blacksmith’s Fancy” and it’s a memorable ensemble piece that never bites off more than it can chew. The difference between lyrically driven numbers and instrumental tracks on this album is quite real and less than obvious – Murphy often turns to exploiting longstanding formulas and themes in the songs with words while the strictly musical songs rarely adhere to formula except to subvert it in some significant way.
The album’s biggest exception to the aforementioned claim comes with “Vernon Tool & Die”. It has a strongly Americana instrumental background, but the arrangement flirts with different genres, even taking on an unpredictably jazzy air. This quirky synthesis is well matched by its frequently obscure lyrics but listening closer and comprehensively to the song should surrender its secrets. “Wish You Well” is a fluffier than average slice of acoustic pop, but it’s an enjoyable commercially minded venture that Murphy and his player hit note perfect. There’s nothing shallow about the hard work that goes into making songs like this sound easier than they are. “Bugulusa Blues” touches on the darker shades of the musical spectrum some, but the title is a little misleading. It’s another of the album’s instrumental tracks and certainly one of its most interesting.
Chris Murphy can’t help himself. These sounds and songs obviously pour from him in melodic, often times lyrical ways and we have been fortunate to hear his attempts at giving them form. Surface to Air is one of his finest solo works yet and will win over anyone smart enough to kick its tires and give it a spin.
9 out 10 stars.