Chris Murphy – Surface to Air
It’s no exaggeration to say albums like Surface to Air are offspring from a dying breed of musician. Violinist Chris Murphy has sustained a quarter century long run in the world of popular music while retaining a vision of his talents akin to traveling musicians in the Middle Ages – playing for the love of playing alone and grateful for whatever additional rewards it brings. Today’s careerist musicians, eying ever dwindling dollars, are seeing their hopes of pop superstardom dashed daily and have deserted this model in increasing numbers. The traditional gatekeepers for popular music, ruined by theft and their own short sightedness, certainly have no use for the musician who views their work as a calling rather than a job. Bloodless professionalism reigns supreme. Chris Murphy’s latest solo release, Surface to Air, is a eloquent and entertaining rebuke to the careerist musicians and their bottom-line minded minders. Its fourteen songs are immaculately presented, the Tracklisting considered, and none of the tracks overstay their welcome.
Songs like “Sailing the World Alone”, “That Might Just Do the Trick”, “Wish You Well”, and “Nothing Good Happens” find Murphy working well within the country music tradition. Each of these songs, particularly the second one, has a tremendous swing invoking, for longtime fans of the genre, possible comparisons with Bob Willis and other exponents of the country style of western swing music. None of the album’s songs delve outright into jazz music, the music isn’t set up that way, but the inflections coloring Murphy’s material are, in many respects, just as important. “Sailing the World Alone” and “Nothing Good Happens” are straight-forward country songs and the latter imaginatively mines some of the genre’s most reliable tropes for an entertaining experience. “Wish You Well” is an endearing bit of melodic fluff, but those moments aren’t slights against the album, but instead welcome variations.
The album’s instrumental pieces are important pieces of its artistic puzzle. Most have a distinctly Irish or otherwise Celtic slant; Murphy’s violin playing is often rambunctious in a way on these songs that compared to his much more tightly controlled, regimented playing on the lyric songs. “The Oscar Wilde Waltz” and “The Hunter & the Fox” stand out among a smattering of true gems. The former is an elegantly composed and performed waltz that never veers off course by even a fraction of a beat, yet exudes pure warmth and humanity. The latter song, and concluding number on the album, restates all of the earlier traditional Irish/Celtic themes in a much grander way than ever before and achieves an unique musical sweep to end the album with.
Chris Murphy’s approach to writing and performing shines through on every recording. He throws himself into these songs head first and applies passion and technique to everything he touches with a sure and steady hand. Surface to Air is one of the most sophisticated entries in country music that you’ll hear this year and deserves the widest possible audience.
9 out of 10 stars.