The third full length album from Scottish born singer/songwriter Kathy Muir, Second Life, is an eleven song collection that continues in her tradition of bringing together elements of traditional American music, particularly its vocabulary, with influences from Scottish music history. This isn’t an academic exercise. While Muir clearly writes material personal and important to her, she has the pronounced skills of a mainstream popular songwriter and a number of the album’s tracks operate in a pure pop vein. The presence of violin throughout the track listing gives the songs a decidedly rustic and appealing quality. Many of the songs are distinctly modern despite their traditional trappings while those embracing bygone sounds do so without being crassly imitative.
The first truly signature track on Second Life is the second song “Better Man”. It’s a song that unfolds the way a good short story does – providing listeners with the incidents and context for its character’s lives within a condensed amount of space and making excellent use of melody. “Simply That” steps back from the high pop style heard on the album’s first two tracks in favor of a much more spartan, bluesy rendition that Muir takes control of from the first and dominates with her personality. The turn on “Honey Child” is straight out of the pop song handbook, but the acoustic guitar work removes some of the poppier aspects. The sincerity of the song is unmistakable, but it’s never so sentimental as to be rendered sickly sweet. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” has crackling electricity surrounding it – the song’s live feel helps it take off straight out of the gate and it never pulls back at any point. Muir is firmly in control throughout thanks to assertive vocals more than capable of keeping up with the musical backing.
“Born by the Water” chugs with a straight-ahead purpose and lyrics filled with terrifically evocative imagery. Muir’s ability to convey that imagery never lacks subtlety and conviction alike – she never forces things too much, but there’s no question that she’s with every single word. The spartan qualities of “Simply That” return on “Never Felt Like a Woman”, but without any of the blues idiosyncrasies of the earlier song and it gives Muir ample space to fill the song with her passionate vocal. “Like Warriors” recalls the traditional songs of Muir’s youth crossed with elements of Americana music. The tempo gives it a slightly cinematic feel and the backing harmony vocals give it an added ethereal quality. The sweeping piano lines of “Troubled Town” pair up nicely with Muir’s impassioned vocals. Second Life ends with a magnificent title song that moves with deliberate, stately grandeur completely different from the earlier songs and invested with a completely different amplitude of drama. It wraps the album up quite artfully and gives it a memorable conclusion that lingers in the consciousness long after the final note dies out. Second Life is all killer, no filler, and a sure candidate for album of the year.
9 out of 10 stars
William Elgin III