Joseph Mulhollen – Problematical Animals (2012)

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There’s an epic sweep to Joseph Mulhollen’s third effort, this layered melding of acoustic elegance and crunchy electronic sounds that constantly confounds expectations — even as it delves into deeply emotional places. Skillful yet ardent, and cunningly varied, Problematical Animals is revealed as a shape-shifting delight.

The album, issued this week on Scenic Route Records, begins with a folky rumination called “Back to the Cave,” as Mulhollen sings in a diaphanous voice that’s almost impossibly fragile. “A Motley Procession” then storms past such quiet confidences with a stomping beat and a propulsive guitar fuzz — before the angular, yet somehow anthematic “Janus” (just the third track so far, mind you) arrives to recombine most of these layered elements into a new amalgam.

From there, Mulhollen moves with grace and ease between these seemingly disparate moods, banging around on “Missing Contact,” calling out with a quivering rawness on “Matter of Division,” offering twilit confessions on “I Was Hammer Hitting Air.”

“We Mark Our Homes” leaves a lasting impression as it stirs in Kate Bush’s swirling vocal atmospheres, Coldplay’s weirdly appealing juxtaposition of militaristic rhythm and crepuscular piano, and this wholly new lyrical sensibility: “The heat on my cheek,” Mulhollen sings, creating striking images that fit together like tone poems, “is the stuff that fills my fears.”

“Garbage,” meanwhile, might have recalled the best of Death Cab for Cutie, but this time Mulhollen’s one-person music-making process is laid bare: As strong as his narrative is, the computerized cadence here is a metronomic distraction.

But Mulhollen, in keeping with an album that moves with such breezy confidence from one thing to another, rebounds nicely — and by the time he reaches the closing “I Have Seen the Mountains,” with its jaunty acoustic and soaring Jeff Buckley-esque vocal, Problematic Animals has corkscrewed right back into your heart.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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