Graded on a Curve:
Mark Mulcahy,
The Possum in the Driveway

Mark Mulcahy was once primarily recognized as a founding member of Miracle Legion, but in the current century he’s equally known for a solo career. Ambitious yet welcoming as a singer-songwriter, Mulcahy’s work can be emotionally powerful without hardening into severity. His latest is less guitar-focused and more orchestrated, but the artist hasn’t gotten lost in the transition. The Possum in the Driveway came out as a limited gold-vinyl edition for Record Store Day, and the standard LP, CD, and digital release follows on April 28 through the Mezzotint label.

Alongside the recently reactivated Miracle Legion, which released a slew of college-radio and indie staples from ’83-’96 (surviving the initial bankruptcy of Rough Trade in the process), Mark Mulcahy was in Polaris (of “Hey Sandy” and The Adventures of Pete & Pete fame) and has additionally collaborated on five operas with the cartoonist Ben Katchor (noted for the long-running weekly strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer). As mentioned above, Mulcahy also has an extensive solo discography that’s capped with 2013’s terrific Dear Mark J Mulcahy I Love You.

Too frequently when solo artists elect to swap out their guitar-based approach for some combination of electronica, horns, and orchestration, the results can radiate like a poorly executed attempt at cinematic greenscreen. Occasionally the disjointedness succeeds, but more often it pits the familiar realness of the musician and their songs against a grafted backdrop, with the resulting artificiality (or fakery, to be less kind) either unintentionally alienating or deliberately jarring.

In striving for fresh sonic territory, The Possum in the Driveway avoids this problem. Instead, “Stuck on Something Else” begins with a mixture of boldness and intimacy, the spare instrumentation offering a music box quality as Mulcahy’s vocal sparks a more productive friction, sounding like it might be emanating from a sparsely populated booze-den at right around closing time.

But then again, he could just be singing in the living room on an uneventful Thursday in the middle of the afternoon. Put another way, the imagery isn’t forced, with Mulcahy’s restraint working in the favor of an album that could easily sway fans of the classic singer-songwriter idiom while satisfying ears having come of age during the indie era.

“30 Days Away” illuminates that the artist and his six-string haven’t become estranged, but it’s the edginess of voice, surges of ambiance, backing vocal interjections, and finally drums that cohere into something decidedly contemporary. Wielding southwestern-styled trumpet and an arid feel, “I Am the Number 13” reignites the cinematic flame of the opener, sounding a bit like Robyn Hitchcock and Howe Gelb collaborating on a soundtrack ditty for a ’90s neo-noir.

The programmed drums and touches of quavering budget-line keyboard keep the ambiance from getting too ornate as the tune simultaneously eschews the common indie mistake of prizing chintziness as a virtue. Mulcahy does flirt with this tendency a smidge in “Catching Mice,” but as the number has a sunshiny disposition it doesn’t detract.

Ultimately, The Possum in the Driveway’s success rests on its gutsier entries. While clearly a solo album with accompaniment, a recurring cast of contributors, specifically Ken Maiuri, John Panos, and album producer Scott Amore, undercut anonymity in the backing, especially on the folk-rock soul merger of “The Fiddler,” a recipe which defies significant odds to become one of the disc’s standouts.

Speaking of cinematic, “Hollywood Never Forgives” fits this description, largely through a wiggling clarinet that deepens a connection to studio-era Tinseltown. In a swell twist, much of the tune thrives on a rock-ish stomp and a loose jazzy upsurge complete with cymbal splashes, contrasts again helping to defuse any sense of the banal.

From there the album enters its strongest stretch, with the guitar, drumming, and vocals in “Conflicted Interests” augmented with electronic threads and overdubbing to achieve a feel that’s both current and classic. In “Cross the Street” however, the balance tilts in favor of an alluring early ’80s-ish singer-songwriter angle, especially as jazzy sophistication gets blended in.

“They Broke the Spell” strips things back to just voice and intertwining keyboard/ synth tones; guitars do enter roughly halfway through, but it’s Mulcahy’s singing that brings it all home. The guitar pop of “Jimmy” is nicely enhanced, with brass placed just right in the mix, and delivers a piece of straightforwardness leading us to the knockout finale of “Geraldine.” The saxophone comes back one more time, but here the feel doesn’t establish associations with old Hollywood or even the erudite ’80s.

The sax doesn’t do anything except heighten one of the best moments on The Possum in the Driveway, a record that resists falling into simple genre formula with natural, veteran skill. In branching out, Mulcahy has equaled his lauded prior effort, the musical adventurousness never undercutting established strengths. Those with an appreciation for Dear Mark J Mulcahy I Love You should prepare room on the shelf for this one.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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