CD Review: Mullins... Mediocre Menagerie
...9th Ward Pickin... Parlor... Pays Inadequate Tribute to New Orleans Music
By Andrew Guerra
9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor
Released: February 14, 2006
It seems like only yesterday that Shawn Mullins was crooning about a Hollywood burnout in “Lullaby” or admonishing the Dawson’s Creek crowd that we teach children to hate in “Shimmer.” Both of these songs are from 1998’s “Soul Core,” an album that features Mullins’ unique brand of cheerful pop about the imperfections of humanity. Fans expecting more of the same, however, will be disappointed by Mullins’ latest release, “9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor,” which has various songs influenced by folk, country, blues, and gospel. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say who would like “9th Ward.” That’s not to say that it’s a bad CD — there are, in fact, many things to like. The problem with “9th Ward’s” diversity of musical influences lies in Mullins’ inability to master any of them.
Shawn Mullins became famous after his 1998 release of “Soul’s Core,” but he has largely faded back into obscurity since then. Interestingly, production of “9th Ward” began in Georgia, where Mullins was raised, but when Mullins decided the pieces lacked the sound that he wanted, production was moved to New Orleans. The title of the record refers to a recording studio in an area of New Orleans that was later destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Yet it appears as though Mullins achieved his desired effect. The rich musical history of New Orleans is obviously present in “9th Ward,” even as Mullins fails to capture its consummate form.
Despite its flaws, “9th Ward” still has some positive aspects. First, the different styles that Mullins uses here are more suited to the subject matter of his songs. “Shimmer” of “Soul Core,” for example, is a song about how people are born to love, but end up learning how to hate. Yet it is also undeniably upbeat, which detracts from the song. “9th Ward,” however, does not have such problems. In “Lay Down Your Swords, Boys,” the song sounds initially like a hymn as Mullins sings about casting aside weapons and beginning a new day. “Cold Black Heart” is a Johnny Cash-style country song about a man and his true love, who cheats on him. “Alaska” is heavily influenced by blues as Mullins describes flying to Alaska to escape his troubles and heartache. Mullins also manages to unite all of the songs on “9th Ward” with a similar pop sensibility. While the songs pay tribute to different types of music, they still contain certain hooks and structure that define them indelibly as Mullins’, even as banjos and mandolins play in the background.
Finally, while the diversity of style means that listeners will like different songs, there are a couple genuinely good songs on the album. “All Fall Down” is a somewhat nonsensical song about kings, queens, and court jesters that shows off Mullins’ ability to write a rock song. The other good song on the album is “House of the Rising Sun,” which is a remake of a classic song that was popularized by The Animals, but is old enough for its origins to be unknown. This song has traditionally been sung from both a male and a female perspective. The song describes a person who has become trapped at the titular house in New Orleans, which the piece hints is a house of ill repute. Interestingly, Mullins sings the song from a female perspective with his rather deep, gravelly voice; this may bother some listeners, particularly those familiar with a previous version, though I didn’t mind.
Unfortunately, while Mullins does several things right with “9th Ward,” the CD as a whole fails in many ways. Firstly, as mentioned before, Mullins isn’t able to master any of the styles he uses on this CD, so a great number of songs are merely decent. Specifically, “Alaska,” as I mentioned before, does indeed have blues influences. Unfortunately, it is too awkward and forced for a blues ballad. “Lay Down Your Swords, Boys” starts out promising with a hymn-like introduction, building instrumentation as the song progresses, but ending as though Mullins was drawing inspiration from John Philip Sousa as essentially an entire marching band begins to play. Finally, as a whole, the many styles Mullins attempts to use feel somewhat unnatural. In many of the songs it’s as though Mullins decided he needed a song of a particular style and forced the existing material he had to fit into this new mold. This sense of effort is palpable in many of the songs, and it contrasts with the spirit of many of the styles Mullins uses, which should flow naturally as an expression of emotion.
For these reasons, “9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor” is a difficult album to recommend. Musically it is, with a few exceptions, mediocre. As a worthy tribute album to the rich musical history of New Orleans, it is also a failure, if well-meaning. Unfortunately for Mullins, the combination of these means that the album will most likely also fail to be one that makes him famous once again.