Chris Murphy – Surface To Air
Chris Murphy’s twenty five plus year career as a professional musician has resulted in a lengthy list of credits and a number of critically lauded solo albums. The latest of these, Surface to Air, is a fourteen song platter naturally dominated by Murphy’s fluent violin but hoisting a large enough tent that a variety of musical strains find their way into the mix. Despite the abundance of talent on display, there isn’t a single second of Surface to Air that plays or feels like some vacant virtuoso trip. These are performances that seek, above all else, to serve their respective songs and little more. The production casts everything in clear relief and gives each of the many instruments their own definable bit of real estate within the final mix.
Jangling guitars open “Sailing the World Alone” but Murphy’s violin soon joins in with sweeping, winding violin lines. He provides the lead for the song’s entire battery of players, but never diminishes their contributions. His vocal talents are unassuming, but the lack of singing pyrotechnics focuses listener’s attention on the lyrics and musical textures. “That Just Might Do the Trick” is a rollicking bit of country swing with a playful sense of balancing light humor with the bittersweet. The light comedic touch never trivializes the track, however, and the tight playing retains a loose assurance that pleases the ear. The album’s title track has simmering, stripped down efficiency that Murphy’s vocal matches with convincing phrasing and just the right amount of restraint. “Vernon Tool & Die” is quite an idiosyncratic number on the album, a full on departure into the singer/songwriter mode. It may not be initially accessible to some listeners and, like many of the album’s songs, deserves repeated listening to comprehend it fully. The quasi-waltz tempo gives the track an easy-going amiability and the narrative thread sustaining its lyrics is quite strong.
“The Oscar Wilde Waltz” is, arguably, the album’s finest instrumental. It’s an exquisitely written piece played with superb timing and moves with smooth control throughout its duration. As the song title indicates, this is an outright waltz that Murphy and his band lock onto and never lose. “Elmira Prison Camp” has rootsy aims and approximates the feel of early 20th century blues and early country classics without ever seeming too imitative. These are intelligent lyrics that do more than invoke the past through obvious images and, instead, try to plumb deep into actual experience. “Wish You Well” strikes a complicated but ultimately conciliatory note. It’s set to a cozy, uptempo folk backing centered on acoustic guitars and Murphy’s melancholy vocal. The album’s concluding song, “The Hunter and the Fox”, is a final instrumental pastoral invoking a variety of moods. The instrumentation remains founded on the marriage of Murphy’s violin with guitars, but the bass lays down a solid groove that allows everything on top to flourish.
It’s a fantastic end to a rich, melodically strong album. Chris Murphy has learned his lessons well from influences like Dylan, Richard Thompson, and countless others. Surface to Air is a deep collection of songs and instrumentals that plays coherently from first song to last and never lapses into self indulgence.
9 out of 10 stars.