A twinkling, swiftly-strummed mandolin enters on the left speaker – the very instrument that Brendan Mulvihill brough with him on a storied jaunt to Russia in 2010, the instrument that inspired a new direction with his band Norwegian Arms.
We’ve heard it before, sure, on the Trimmings of Hides EP and the Sibir’ single. But here, there’s something different – a sound that’s bigger, bolder, dressed up in spacey high fidelity, showing Mulvihill’s songs to be more than the scrappy folk musings of a guy teaching English in the cold city of Tomsk during the wintertime. On Wolf Like A Stray Dog, released this week, Norwegian Arms establishes itself as a band with a broad artistic vision. The album’s lush production scope calls to mind 60s American psych-folk, as well as thumping, rhythm-driven world music that was popularized in the 1980s (the pre-Graceland stuff). Meanwhile, Mulvihill’s lyrics – though tied intrinsically to a specific time and place – feel universal.
In that jangley mandolin-led track “And then I Found Myself in the Taiga” – a nod to the geographical region, also known as “Northwoods,” situated above 60 degrees N latitude (thanks, Wikipedia) – the scene opens on Mulvihill in October, having just arrived in his new home. He parses his sense of displacement with thoughts like “If you whisper, the air whispers back in anecdotes” and “Remember, the frost on the door is yours.” But if you didn’t read in however dozen many interviews and album reviews that these songs were based in Russia, you might think those lyrics have roots in Fargo, North Dakota. Or Alaska. Or anywhere with a brutal winter north of 60 degrees latitude.
“Tired of Being Cold” is another very literal reaction to this, and probably the only song where it’s difficult to say it could be about anywhere else. To a jaunty beat care of drummer / multi-instrumentalist Eric Slick, Mulvihill sings “I had never thought before how weather could easily so change my outward view of life and make me yearn for home.” (That looks like a mouthful when we write it out, but trust me – he makes it work when he’s actually delivering it.)
On the other hand, “She Lives In A Secret Town” – the very Soweto track we spotlighted yesterday – makes mention of riding the same bus and seeing the same faces day in, day out. Sounds not unlike my commute riding the 18 to Broad and Olney. “My Toy Piano” has a bumping rhythm and a subtle synthesizer guiding along Mulvihill’s bright falsetto – there’s no toy piano, alas – and though the song is about an instrument he got abroad, the songwriter could also be singing about that moment of finding comfort in any strange place. It could be a new house in a different part of town. It could be a first semester at a college far away from home.
This, in essence, is the strength of Wolf Like A Stray Dog. With skilled engineering at Dr. Dog’s Meth Beach studio by Michael Chadwick and smart arrangements by Slick and mixer Jose Diaz, the album sounds very lush and dreamlike – a perfect audio compliment to its sweep through Mulvihill’s memories. But while Mulvihill hears in this dream one thing, he carves out room for the rest of us to hear whatever we so choose. It’s a personal travelogue as much as it’s a blank canvas, an open notebook for us to trace parallels to our own life experience.
Wolf Like a Stray Dog is the featured album in this week’s edition of Unlocked; hear the spotlighted single “She Lives in a Secret Town” in yesterday’s post, and check back later in the week for interviews, video and more.
Johnny Brenda's, Norwegian Arms, Unlocked