Love and the future of Democracy – two large and intertwined topics.
SistaStrings are cellist-vocalist Monique Ross and violinist-vocalist Chauntee Ross, and they’ve teamed with Peter Mulvey to make an album of some sonic depth – a quite remarkable thing since the only other player on the album is percussionist Nathan Kilen, who also adds some backing vocals. Strings will do that. The twelve songs that make up the album sit in one of two camps – songs of family and love and songs of how messed up Mulvey finds the USA (and much of the rest of the world) right now. Throw in the topic de jour of the global pandemic and it can easily be imagined that there is some overlap as political songs become love songs and vice-versa. The album opens though with ‘Shenandoh‘, with the traditional song opening tentatively as if the musicians are finding their way into it for the first time and then proceeds at a pace so stately that every word feels like heavy with gravitas. When the strings come fully in the well-known ballad feels ennobled, making something new of the well-worn and well-known song. That initial tentative moving into the song reflects the feel of the whole album which has a vivid freshness in what sounds like quickly grabbed takes – there’s a live feel to more than one song as studio chatter appears as songs fade in or out. This isn’t at all offputting – it enhances the music with an immediacy that makes for compelling listening.
Then it’s time for the first of the love songs – and Mulvey doesn’t hold back on the incipient passion described on ‘Soft Animal‘, with the declaration “The soft animal of my body wants the soft animal of yours“. That confident assertion dances around with doubt “Oh my heart it wants to quit because it is too tired of wanting” and no little confusion “my anger wants to run away or turn itself inside” making this confession of love all the more relatable as it acknowledges the layers of emotion that encompass love in the real world as compared to the more often idealized concept. This acceptance that life isn’t actually simple can also be found on ‘Song for Michael Brown‘ where over a simple strum Peter Mulvey talk-sings through the complexities of eventually finding resolutions, reaching an almost shocking conclusion “I’m asking you to have some compassion / For young dead Michael Brown / And for his family / And for his city / And for the man who shot him down.” It is, he points out, the only path to the future but there’s more than a hint of despair in the thoughts “I know God loves us / I know God loves us / I know God loves us / I don’t know how.”
There’s gentle finger-picked folk on the co-write with J.Green (Mulvey’s wife) “On the Other Side” which whirls through the puzzle of love, and death and what – if anything – happens afterwards. The comfort is that even if death is final then love will continue. It’s a song that Peter Mulvey has explained as being tinged with fears for his parents during the worst of the pandemic, and the pandemic is the backdrop to the story of an idyllic day in the city described in ‘Summer of ’21‘. The jaunty stroll through memories as simple as riding a train, buying a beer or a taco are given poignancy by the reflection that “we were just so happy / To have been in the world again.” Whilst the pandemic isn’t quite over, there’s a positivity to this song which reminds one that there’s hope for the future.
Less idylic is ‘Old Men Drinking Seagram’s‘, a co-write with John Statz , which paints a picture of Small Town USA emphasizing the thin veneer of everything being ok with the country club, big manicured lawns, and the family all at church on Sunday. The other side is racism (“there’s exactly two Black kids / Who ain’t exactly having fun“), homophobia (“they pick on the queer kids“), misogyny (“She just wanted to fit in / And they branded her a slut“) and a despising of anyone outside the accepted norm (“they pick on the Jews“). Appropriately it has an eerie and disturbing string accompaniment, like the moment in the horror film when something is about to go very wrong.
The album closer is an impassioned rendition of the Chuck Prophet/klipschutz song ‘Love is the Only Thing’ which powerhouses along on a strident acoustic guitar beat with Mulvey losing vocal control whilst SistaStrings bring a heavy drone accompaniment. It’s glorious – a song that it is impossible to listen to only once with a message that’s just right-on – the question is “Maybe we can sort the right from the wrong” and the answer is “Love is a hurting thing / Oh but love is the only thing / Anymore.” You see, hate can’t win in the end – it has to be love or it’s all pointless and we all lose. Beautiful, and worth getting the album for just this song. A funny aside – as delivered to this reviewer Track 10, ‘See You On The Other Side‘ had not been numbered. Hence when listening to the album it turned up after the title track as a rather gentle coda to the album after the unbound exuberance of ‘Love Is The Only Thing‘. Try it, you might like it. And that goes for the whole album – if you enjoy love and politics with a string folk-Americana arrangement then here’s your album.