Chris Murphy – The Tinker’s Dream
You can glean some measure of Chris Murphy’s attentions from his album covers. The latest, The Tinker’s Dream, has a beautiful cover depicting presumably European architectural sculpture. This is the sort of album cover that a serious artist puts forth for a collection of songs and the dozen tracks on The Tinker’s Dream bear out such suppositions. These are vibrantly alive but highly skilled explorations of music with European origins thoroughly transformed by the Americana musical culture. Experienced listeners are likely to hear many of the instrumentals as Appalachian influenced fare given a light and lively Celtic twist. The production work renders a variety of instruments with clarity and the mix balances these disparate sounds in an artful way. The songs with lyrics and vocals reference traditional music, but they reframe those references in a more personal context.
“Connemara Ponies” starts this off the way you might expect a widescreen epic film to begin. The music is never portentous or overwrought. It has tremendous strength thanks to how the melody takes off with such zest and keeps winding in melodic patterns. It never feels hurried and the musicians, led by Chris Murphy’s violin, put on a clinic about how to seamlessly weave a variety of musical voices. “Union of the Seven Brothers” creates a clear contrast in mood. The pace isn’t as driven, but the layered effect of the arrangement is just as powerful here as listeners hear on the opener. Like the album’s remaining songs, “Union of the Seven Brothers” runs just the right amount of time and has unwavering across the board focus. The first song with vocals and lyrics, “Wicklow”, is about a lot of things, but the primary theme here is classic surviving hard luck and times. Murphy’s quasi-sardonic vocal never tries to compete with the musical backing and conforms as closely as possible to the melody. “Gibraltar 1988” recalls the earlier “Union of Seven Brothers” but is far more considered and strained with elegiac, melancholic streaks. It is one of the most musically lyrical songs on The Tinker’s Dream and among its finest instrumentals.
The mood brightens considerably on “Cape Horn”. The language of the lyrics is grounded in details rather than fuzzy generalities and it gives the song’s narrator a strong, dramatic voice. Murphy realizes the potential of the lyrics and gets some valuable contributions on backing vocals. His violin doesn’t play such a central role in this song and the guitar work gets a rare chance to shine. Other instruments take a turn in the spotlight during the breaks. “Small Wonder” is another track with vocals and another bright melody filling the instrumental breaks. The vocal melody for the verses falls a little flatter in comparison, but it’s very suitable for what is essentially a love song and hits its peak with a solid chorus. The musical mood clouds over again with “The Thistlewood Bridge”, but there’s a different spirit behind this song than earlier numbers. It doesn’t follow the same melodic pattern as many of the other songs and that change in flavor comes at an excellent place on the album.
The Tinker’s Dream ends with “The Hayloft Waltz”. It’s a musically adept exploration of a particular tempo that has, largely, fallen out of favor in popular music. The one time staple retains the power to hold a listener’s attention and Murphy’s violin is the best part of this presentation. Chris Murphy’s songwriting and performance meets every benchmark for genre devotees and this his finest release to date.
9 out of 10 stars