The Irish/Italian dominated neighborhoods of New York City doesn’t seem like the most likely place for producing Americana artists, but performers and songwriters like Chris Murphy give immediate lie to that presumption. His latest studio effort Red Mountain Blues is a fourteen song collection well divided between a customary mix of instrumentals and lyrically driven tracks essayed by Murphy’s vocals. His virtuosic command of violin extends to his underrated vocal delivery – Murphy never overplays his hand and, instead, ferrets out the pathos or humor in each lyric with cool, even-handed phrasing.
His instinct for construction comes through immediately. Murphy begins with the title track, a nervy uptempo statement of purpose instantly laying out the album’s musical ethos. Throughout the album, Murphy closely adheres to traditional tropes, but his endlessly inventive melodic flair and the infectious pace of many songs gives the material unusual propulsion. It isn’t any small feat to produce ten inspired musical performances for an album, but Murphy manages to serve up a collection free from filler and focused on its deceptively modest goals. There is a wide range of material on Red Mountain Blues that ranges from folksy invocations of bygone times all of the way to modern Americana character studies. “Black Roller” plays itself out somewhere in the middle of these approaches and shares much of the same energy level heard in the instrumental opener. The album’s fifth track, “Kitchen Girl”, features the talents of Tim O’Brien joining Murphy for what is one of the release’s finest lyrical numbers.
“Cast Iron” is a deft and lean instrumental providing the players an ideal, compact forum for exhibiting their fluency with the form. The guitar and violin, particularly, spar with vivid interplay that keeps the song crackling from the first notes onward. “Dry County” turns the album towards more outright playful ends with its portrayal of a drinker’s travails in one of those curious relics of early 20th century “blue laws”, state counties where the sale of alcohol is prohibited by law. “Dig For One Day More” wafts out of the speakers like some ancient field song and the haunting harmonies are on hypnotic point. Murphy’s vocal turn during the verses has startling emotional clarity perfect for the lyrical content. The gradual melodic climb of “Buckwheat Pancakes” has the sort of effortless charm that never truly spins off the cuff but, instead, is a cool and confident product born from years of dedication.
“Johnson County” is another fine outing for Murphy that invokes his gospel and blues influences with rare elegance and a strong instinct for brevity. The song’s melodic swirl has an easy going stride sure to entrance many listeners. The album’s penultimate song, “Chicksaw Freedman”, has beautiful and well-thought out simplicity without ever seeming too calculated or deliberate. Murphy’s slightly lazy tone gives the song an uniquely deadpan quality without ever sounding too stilted. The album’s final song, “The Lord Will Provide”, is a memorably upbeat finale to Red Mountain Blues, but still streaked with faint strains of melancholy that recall the guiding impulse behind much of this traditional music