Scottish-born singer/songwriter Kathy Muir’s third album, Second Life, likely represents her peak to this point. Each successive release since her debut has built off its predecessor’s advances and this eleven song collection stands as the fullest realization of her songwriting vision yet. Each of the songs has an identifiable signature – the curiosity with shifting tempos for dramatic effect, the smoky ambiance Muir capably invests some of her lyrics in, and the flexibility to convincingly perform from a variety of temperaments. Muir’s music typically gets lumped into the Americana genre. It is true that she utilizes a lot of traditional instrumentation and certainly displays more than a passing familiarity with the tropes of popular song, Muir music has a bluesy rock and roll heart beating just below the surface of some of these songs. The production highlights her in a memorable fashion and captures her collaborators with all of the balance and vivid clarity they deserve.
Second Life begins with the song “Lucky One”. The arrangement is tastefully inventive – it builds from an acoustic opening into a striding folk-rocker and also features a number of brief tempo shifts along the way that will jolt listeners to attention. The lyrics have more than one layer and resist specific interpretation. It’s all the better for it. “Better Man” builds in a similar fashion and will musically satisfy anyone who enjoyed the opener. The lyrical content has a much more specific, narrative oriented slant than before – Muir’s songwriting excels dissecting the vagaries of male/female relationships without ever pandering to listener’s preconceptions about such material. The key to that is the plain-spoken poetic quality of her lyrics. She conjures a bluesy spirit on “Simply That” and, unlike the earlier songs, it maintains an acoustic approach throughout. The lack of a full band arrangement affords Muir an opportunity to stretch out vocally and she responds with some soulful pyrotechnics that mark a highlight of the album.
“I Want To Lay Down” soars largely on the basis of a beautiful violin playing that carries the main melody. Muir’s voice works as a counterpoint of sorts for that central instrumental figure and delivers another mesmerizing vocal. The pleasing straight forward quality of the music and vocal melody on “Born by the Water” is perfect for getting its outstanding and often poetic lyrics over with listeners, but Muir can’t resist tweaking her listeners’ ears with a few unexpected minor twists. Exceptional lyrics help “Never Felt Like a Woman” stand above the pack and Muir navigates the words with confidence and deep feeling. There’s a slightly exotic quality to the melody, but Muir never exaggerates it.
The penultimate song and piano ballad “Troubled Town” might remind some of a much less pretentious Tori Amos, but Muir firmly crouches her language in the vernacular of Americana, particularly blues, music. The title song finishes the album with a lyric that seems to reference the preceding song some and begins with Muir’s acapella vocal. This is the crowning achievement – the spectacularly colorful yet unobtrusively presented classical background gives Muir a dream-like staging for her vocal. Second Life is the sound of an artist hitting her stride and deserves the widest possible audience.
9 out of 10 stars.