"The Late Great Southwest"
A new name presents a debut album. And it helps a darned lot to get the attention if some excellent musicians contribute on the tracks! Especially when it's somebody like Tom Heyman or other members from The Court and Spark. But who is D. Mulligan?
"July 2006 found D. Mulligan spending the last days of his 26th year on a retreat in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, just below Yosemite's southern border. The trip was led by two of his favorite songwriters, Tim Bluhm and Steve Poltz, who took a small group high into the Sierras for four days of writing, playing and workshopping. Friendships formed and songs were born, and Mulligan soon entered Bluhm's San Francisco studio to record his debut album "The Late Great Southwest". Produced by Bluhm, it features members of the Mother Hips, The Court and Spark, Jackie Greene, and Poltz, who co-wrote one song on the album.
"The Late Great Southwest" traverses a range of musical landscapes as varied as those of his native Arizona. Americana, country and rock instrumentation provide a soundtrack for Mulligan's imaginative memoirs, telling stories of faces and places endangered by rapid development and an ever-increasing pace of life. Often, his acoustic guitar and vocals stand alone, singing a lonesome song or a twisted murder ballad.
An elementary school teacher with a master's in special education, Mulligan traded in the keys to his Tucson apartment and life in the classroom for an extended Dodge van and life on the road. Since independently releasing his record, he has toured the western United States as a solo act from Arizona to Alaska, booking his own shows and garnering an extended network of friends along the way."
Now we know D. a little better, let's take the disc from the dark green digipack and give it a spin! It starts off with "Postcard", rather uptempo countryrock with a good rhythm tandem and a great pedal steel guitar. That solo! Yes, this is Tom Heyman from San Francisco, one of my favorite musicians and a talented singer-songwriter in his own right. "And you've been whispering on the phone / Sounds like you've got yourself a plan". A line like that in the first song, that's promising. And it gets even better immediately when "Desert Rose" begins with every critics dream of a quote: "There's a hole in your heart / As big as the Grand Canyon / And a weight in your chest / Like an atom bomb test run". It goes on: "There's a stain on your shirt / Looks like that desert dirt and teardrops / And oil on your shoes / You've been boozing at the truckstops". And then there's the line that explains it all: "The ghosts of your past last forever / And then some." The music is a mix of alt.country and alt.rock, with keys, slower, a desert sound. "Get Back (Older Ways)" goes back indeed, to the typical Californian countryrock style. Then it's "The Pace Of Change": slow, simple but impressive. "Machines flatten the earth / Knock down the trees, and rearrange the dirt / My spirit is floored, as the concrete is poured / And a little bit more disappears." Acoustic and electric guitars, shakers in the background, later building up with an accordion, additional vocals and drums on the chorus. The tail end is surprising with keyboards and some sort of mantra: "Make yourself slow down". Finally the track fades out at almost seven minutes.
My two favorite songs follow. The runner-up is "Canyon Wren". Yes, that's a little bird. "On the walls that give shade to these waters / Are the ledges you have flown." And this is a pretty, friendly ballad. Harmonies on the chorus and a surprising pedal steel guitar solo halfway, Tom Heyman again, of course. He is prominently featured right away in my number one favorite, "Brother Out Of Luck", where his musical instrument gets the starring role. It's a spell-binding song about a man, leaving Tucson in his '72, to help his brother up in Flagstaff, who has been sleeping in his truck. "So I'm driving across this desert past the penitentiary / I'm getting to the pines and I can smell the trees / There's a billboard that says Jesus Saves and I pray that it's true / I've got a Smith and Wesson gun and my brother's got one too / We're gonna take a stand against the man in the suit / Cause we ain't afraid of him and we ain't afraid to shoot / We're gonna say some things and we're gonna say 'em loud / Cause the working man like any man's got the right to be proud." This should be a prize winning song in one of those songwriting contests, where they always pick the wrong winners! I don't know what D. tried to do exactly in "Miriam", but it doesn't work out that well. The song only features the acoustic guitar, the lyrics are based on teenage band love songs and it's way too long. "Collapsible Plans", co-written by Steve Poltz and David Stuart, is much stronger though. Based on a soundscape, the guitar has a voice of its own, ominous drums, a slow monotone story, pedal steel touches. "Spent our nights in a beach motel / We saved our money for contraband", the thriller starts quite innocently like it should. "The storm rolled in and brought a terrible rain / It drove the crowd straight from the pier", that's where trouble appears... "The weatherman said it's time to go / It won't take long to pack our things / And head on South to Mexico / It's easy to leave when you've got no strings", there's still hope but then: "Just one stop at a liquor store / I tucked my gun into my jeans / Left the car running with an open door". I won't spoil the suspense, but it all ends in a very bloody way! The chorus sounds like a children's song and it even comes back in the finale... Very strong find. Anybody, please, make a movie based on this script! Acoustic guitar and drums enter first on "Mining Man", unfolding into a great soundscape, a fitting arrangement. Sounding though, like this coppermine is situated in an empty rocky desert, maybe a couple of old skeletons are still inside... "Don't Wake Up" is the last track, it seems to be a short simple lovesong with guitars, but it describes the fear of loneliness after a one night stand. It's still a slightly disappointing end.
D. is not a 'singer-singer' -you know what I mean- but I love his fine, fascinating voice. Hushed, throaty, sad. His songs paint pictures and we always feel that dry, strong wind blowing in from the desert. Every time you think 'I got it!', a surprising twist turns up. "The Late Great Southwest" is a CD that requires a little patience and loving attention, to give up all of its stories and all of its beauty.
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, May 2008.