It must feel tremendous, like a great show of respect, when other well-known musicians choose to cover your songs. That’s what happened in 2009 to Mark Mulcahy, the former 80s-90s frontman for Miracle Legion and Polaris (the house band for the television series The Adventures of Pete & Pete). After Mulcahy’s wife Melissa passed away, a number of musical giants put together a record of covers to help support the artist and his children in a time of need. The name of the record derived from a pretty line Mulcahy wrote in the obituary for his wife (which you can read in the Hartford Courant): “Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy”. The record began with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke doing a stellar cover of “All for the Best”. The album also included R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Pixies’ Frank Black, Juliana Hatfield, Elvis Perkins, Vic Chesnutt, Josh Rouse and many others. For many listeners, hearing Yorke’s praise of Mulcahy as one of the best voices he’s ever heard, sent new fans his direction. It also didn’t hurt that English writer Nic Hornby had written an essay about Mulcahy’s song, “Hey Self-Defeater”, in his 2002 book about his love for music, “31 Songs”.
So, who is Mulcahy exactly? Well, in a way he’s made his name being a musician’s musician. An artist who somehow never quite became known enough to be part of popular music, but who existed in that regional realm and among people who live, breathe, and sleep music. There are plenty of musicians like that, a list which most likely includes folks like Patty Griffin, Martin Sexton, Joey Kneiser, and Joe Henry — but maybe even less acknowledged. Call it slipping through the cracks. Or the familiar story of a cult artist. But there’s a silver lining here, because Mulcahy has a new record out now, “Dear Mark J. Mulcachy, I Love You” (out via The Mezzotint Label), which might just be the best record he’s ever made, and is certainly one of the best releases of 2013. It’s an album that’s passionate, cheeky, uncanny, unexpected, with heavy melodic hooks and unconventionally beautiful lyricism.
Take the opening verse of his catchy “Poison Candy Heart”, one of a couple of tracks about a cataclysmic woman: “You foolish little waste of time / You pucker up like lemon lime / I’m sinking into your corduroy / I saw you kissing the paperboy / You saw enough to keep it light / You caught me up with a landmine / Driving drunk / With a baby in the trunk / And the whole town knows you’re no good … / Who’s gonna clean this up? / Probably me, like I always do / You gotta poison candy heart.” Or try his down-and-dirty blues honky-tonk number, “Everybody Hustles Leo”, with its grimy guitar chords: “She tried to sell me some sky / She kept it in her wonderbra / She put everything in the same bag / Well, who cares, as long as it’s white and you can snort it / Leo / She could get her milk from a crowbar / She doesn’t waste no moment on small talk / She couldn’t care less / If you hiked up her dress / Just as long as you made it worth her while.” The album opener is the hard-rollicking straight-70s rock ‘n roll guitar track, “I Taketh Away”: “They lived hard and they died heard / On all fours for everything / They kissed the ass that was presented / The bluebell flower of the bike lane / Gold-plate the whores, and keep the change.”
The wildly psychedelic indie-pop song, “Let the Fireflies Fly Away”, was released for streaming a couple of months back, and featured Mulcahy’s flair for the strange and capricious. The song weaves in and out of topsy-turvy musical transitions and wonderfully nonsensical personifications of animals, like a zoo gone wild with “monkey family feuds”, “hitch-hiking chickens (without weed)”, and marvelous child-like rhymes: “beavers chewing down the day (and) a donkey in a Chevolet.” There might be complaints about the record spilling over with too much cleverness and perhaps a bit of forced ingenuity, but I’m not buying that. The messiness is part of the beauty. To take the latter, you must accept the former. Mulcahy packs his punches in tightly, like little diamonds, in songs no longer than four minutes. Listen below to the short-but-sweet, “She Makes the World Turn Backwards”, which musically sounds like a wonderful sister-song to Elvis Perkins’ “Shampoo” (2009). It’s a clean, clear, simple, impassioned acoustic song about love in spite of the cost. This is an astounding record. Follow Mulcahy at facebook and soundcloud. Note: All lyrics above are unofficial.