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Ciao My Shining Star – The Songs of Mark Mulcahy

on October 11, 2009, 8:00am
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(The following is a review of the 21-track physical release of this record. 20 high-quality bonus tracks are available to purchase individually or as part of a deluxe package via iTunes.)

“The songs of Mark who?”

It’s a question that fans of the artists on this tribute record have probably been asking themselves ever since this project was first announced. And if you’re equally guilty of being unfamiliar with Mark Mulcahy, join the club or legion as the case may be. Consequence of Sound has long championed Mulcahy’s work as the front man of college radio sweethearts Miracle Legion, the creative force behind Polaris (the house band for the cult Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete), an acclaimed solo artist, and most recently, an opera writer. And despite our frightening amount of clout in the music world, Mark Mulcahy is still no closer to being a household name. But while he may be Mark Who? to most music fans, to some of the more innovative artists and bands in the industry, he’s a friend, colleague, and creative influence. Simply put, when Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, and Frank Black take time out to record your songs, you’ve left some sort of meaningful mark on music.

Unfortunately, it took a tragedy for this long overdue tribute to come together. Mulcahy’s wife, Melissa Rich, passed away a year ago, which left Mulcahy to care for his two daughters and also raised questions about his future as a musician. The idea for a tribute album originated with Nathaniel Smalley, a Mulcahy fan who began contacting artists about contributing to a project that would benefit Mulcahy’s family. The response was truly overwhelming, as a wide array of artists came together to put out two discs worth of material for this cause. The results, as might be expected, are a bit of a mixed bag, but there is an endless amount of heart and good will on Ciao My Shining Star, which is not only a tribute to Mulcahy’s music but also a fitting way to remember Melissa Rich.

Thom Yorke’s take on Miracle Legion’s “All for the Best” is the most anticipated cover on this record, and the Radiohead front man doesn’t fail to put his own stamp on the song. Yorke strips the original of its pop sensibilities in favor of an electronic flavor, which somehow manages to preserve the song’s intended sentiment. Perhaps most interesting, though, is how much Yorke’s voice sounds like Mulcahy’s at times. Yorke has credited Mulcahy as a significant influence on his singing style, and this is as evident as ever on “All for the Best”.

Like Yorke, Michael Stipe, Frank Black, and Dinosaur Jr. all turn in creative interpretations of Mulcahy’s songs. On “Everything’s Coming Undone”, Stipe takes three lyrics from Mulcahy’s version and builds a sonic anthem around them that culminates in a wall of sound by song’s end. Black delivers a more brooding and theatrical version of Mulcahy’s narrative song “Bill Jocko”, which takes on a new sense of urgency as Black bellows, “Why do I have to stay?/And why does she get to go?” “The Backyard” was Miracle Legion’s first taste of college radio success, and J Mascis & Co. does this classic justice, delivering a heavier and trippier version that maintains all the addictive appeal of the original.

Other highlights include more faithful renditions of Mulcahy’s work. The National’s “Ashamed of The Story I Told” adds piano and more pronounced percussion to the Polaris original for what might be the record’s best track. Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne) sticks to the perfect pop script of “Cookie Jar”, fleshing the song out with beautifully layered backing vocals. The gentle and subdued “Wake up Whispering” highlights the back half of the album, with a fuzzy intimacy that makes it sound like Ben Kweller is strumming and singing in the room with you.

Cover songs can serve as a good introduction to an artist, but Ciao My Shining Star doesn’t really give those new to Mulcahy a real clear picture of what his music is about. Although Mulcahy typically plays a good portion, if not all, of the instruments on his albums, his voice is the instrument that his songs are really built upon. An extreme, though obvious, example would be the record’s title track. Unbelievable Truth does a straightforward and beautiful version of “Ciao My Shining Star”, but it’s a completely different animal when Mulcahy performs it in a falsetto; it becomes unlike anything else you’re likely to hear-strange and somehow perfectly natural at the same time. The covers on this record may give you an inkling of what Mulcahy is about, but until you hear him sing his songs, you’ve only scratched the surface.

There’s plenty to enjoy on this tribute record, but the real question is whether or not this heartwarming effort will help get Mulcahy back in the studio and on stage. The chances seem good at this point. “I just have a lot of stuff that I want to put out,” Mulcahy told Eric R. Danton of The Hartford Courant. “Time was expendable to me for a long time, but now it’s a luxury.”

A new Mulcahy album? That would truly be all for the best.

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