How cool is it when an uncle picks up a pen and writes you a letter on the day you are born? Probably cool when you are three or four, not so cool when you hit your teens, but the coolest thing in the world when you're 40 or 50. Think of it. An uncle who recognizes the value of your birth, who recognizes that you are beginning your own incredible journey and wants to just welcome you into the world. If he doesn't gain the status of coolest uncle ever, you have to have been blessed with some really amazing relatives.
Peter Mulvey uses those letters as the central thread on his latest CD, Letters From a Flying Machine, and it couldn't work better. The letters are either actual or edited, plane sounds in the background, Mulvey reading what he supposedly wrote on the dates the little ones entered the world. In soft and pragmatic voice, he vocally writes the words, starting with "Dear (name)" and continues on with either simple observations or stories he considers of value. What he says is not as much value as the mere fact that he says them. After all, the human, especially as a child, craves respect and recognition after love and comfort and who better to start the child out than the cool uncle.
This cool uncle writes songs in much the same voice—meaning voice and not the actual voice—confident, soft and full of the wonder of life and music. He is poet to youth from start to finish and is in many ways a youth again, himself. Finding ways to point out the obvious, he weaves words young people have to find intriguing, as in Kids In the Square, which begins:
If you got a pretty good idea what you're looking for
Those are lyrics worthy of a Dr. Seuss or a Shel Silverstein geared toward the tweens and teens and Mulvey peppers them throughout the album. This album is a lyrical delight, in fact.
It gets personal, too. The letters, each written to a specific young niece or nephew (the spoken words do not get in the way and in fact even add to the flow); the songs, written with the same thought in mind. Is there an Erica in Mulvey's life? One can only assume so when he sings What's Keeping Erica? and you cannot help but hope so because having a song written to you or about you is a very special thing. When Erica is old, it will be beyond special. No less special is the true story he tells about "Vlad the Astrophysicist," one of those tales children love to hear sitting on the floor in a room full of older people tossing such tales around freely. Ah, to be young again and be able to toss aside the seriousness of life for the pure enjoyment of such times.
Musically, Mulvey is in a great place to tell those stories, too, simple and intricate acoustic guitar finger-picking over a jazzy upright bass with the occasional keyboard or cello or mandolin thrown in for good measure, always to the betterment of the song. And Mulvey? He is without a doubt that cool uncle, able to stretch the truth without stretching the truth, an uncle's domain if ever there was one. He is perfect for the part, obviously one more for the light rather than the stark side of life, a cushion to the father's duty-bound stance of reality.
On this album, at least. Put together very meticulously, it captures a part of our souls buried beneath the mundane and everyday worries of survival—that part born when we are born and, in the better situations, carried until adulthood. Listening to Letters From a Flying Machine is much like reading one of the great books we find in childhood, the ones that make us forget everything except what is going on in those pages. His chapters, sung or spoken, are maybe like chapters of his book. With titles like Dynamite Bill and …Plus the Many Inevitable Fragments and Mailman and Bears, you can't help but be anxious to get from one to the next, just to see what is there.
If grade school teachers are looking for some music to capture the kids' imaginations, this may very well be the one. There is not a drop of condescension nor anything else to put off a kid. Only Peter Mulvey, telling his stories.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Website design by David N. Pyles