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Second Life Review – ‘Muir unleashes some poetic fireworks’

The work on Kathy Muir’s first two albums has lead her here. Her third release Second Life is the summit of her accomplishment thus far and improves over her two fine past releases. If there’s any remaining justice in the modern music world, the merits of this effort should catapult her out of the indie scene and onto a much larger stage than she’s occupied so far. Muir’s approach is a blend of different influences and happily difficult to categorize. She’s certainly an advanced lyricist, a writer capable of exploring serious themes and narratives without ever overwriting. The same principle extends to her musical talents. The songs are crafted with an idea that they should do their job with the audience and get out with a minimum amount of fuss and not a single song falls short of that goal.

The first song assured to grab listener’s attention is “Better Man”. In some ways, the subject matter is rather familiar to anyone who listens to a lot of serious songwriters, but Muir spins it in a different direction. Much of the responsibility for that comes from her skill with characterizations – both central figures in this song emerge full-bodied from the song with the same level of significant detail one expects to find in a fine short story. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” is definitely a throwback number that does a fine job approximating a rockabilly attitude, but it is certainly much more lyrically sophisticated than the typical efforts in this vein while still remain great, raucous musical fun. She pulls everything close for the tender turn she takes with “I Want To Lay Down” and the plaintive wanting of the title is reflected in the lyrics. This is quite a beautifully wrought and patient song.

“Born by the Water” is certainly a little less sophisticated musically than what Muir has, to this point, spoiled us for, but it becomes clear soon enough that the primary focus here is lyrical rather than musical. Muir unleashes some poetic fireworks here, but they are decidedly low-key and never unnecessarily gaudy. There are a variety of interpretations and Muir’s playful vocal certainly seems to relish not entirely spelling things out for her listeners. She comes close to the blues with the immensely stylish and witheringly honest “Never Felt Like a Woman” – it will be difficult for anyone to not be impressed by the equal parts technique and sincerity required to make this song such a success. The contemplative and yet very proud “Like Warriors” harkens back to Muir’s folkie roots – it’s a nice interlude from the more frequent bouts of Sturm and Drang on the album’s second half. The closer, “Second Life”, is a title song very much from the school of making big statements. Fortunately, it highlights a forward looking vision for her life, and by extension her art, while never disavowing the experiences bringing her to where she is today. This sort of remarkable maturity and wisdom defines Second Life personally and artistically.

Aaron Ellis, Valhalla Music Blog

Second Life – ‘depth of songwriting talents beyond the merely musical’

The real beauty in an album like Kathy Muir’s Second Life is heard in the chances it takes. It might seem like an odd thing to say for an album and artist solidly classified as Americana, but Muir doesn’t always play it safe and that’s a quality setting her some distance apart from many of her contemporaries. The depth of her songwriting talents extends beyond the merely musical – Muir’s skill level as a lyricist is extraordinarily high and each of the album’s eleven tracks is touched in some significant way by her talents in that area. She’s a judicious writer as well as musician – there are no needless musical or verbal pyrotechnics on this album and every single part is functional rather than ornamental. The single biggest influence on the album is likely its most understated – the influence of Scottish traditional music on Muir’s particular interpretation of Americana.

The knowing, skeptical air imbuing much of that type of music comes through in the opener “Lucky One”. Some of the lines turning on surprisingly caustic sentiments while others are clearly alight with regret and pain. Muir completely embodies both turns with a sure sense of confidence and her voice is perfectly tailored to the backing track. She hits an even higher mark with “Better Man” thanks to the wrenching family drama it depicts and the emotion coursing through Muir’s voice. The particular details working within the lyric help make it an even stronger experience for listeners. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” is a romping nod to Muir’s love of traditional rockabilly, but this is too stylish and technically accomplished to be considered much more than a nod. It has a high energy level, however – probably more so than any other track on Second Life.

The folky in Muir comes to the fore on the song “I Want to Lay Down”. Wags might assume the title is a reference to Muir’s need for rest, but it’s actually one of a few love songs on Second Life that are notable for their gentleness and exceptional artisanship. The feel of the song does a great job of recalling the folk song tradition and its separate sections hang together quite tightly while still breathing quite well. The plonking urgency of “Born by the Water” could have easily went in much more predictable bluesy direction, but it’s own particular take on the folk music tradition depends largely on its exceptional lyric to carry the day. A final high point on Second Life comes with the song “Never Felt Like a Woman”. Her unadorned honesty, almost painful to hear, fills the song with deep pathos that earlier numbers lack. The album’s concluding song and title cut is a grandiose, but never self-indulgent, marriage of Muir’s confessional songwriting, open-hearted vocals, and a classical backing. It ends Second Life on an intensely hopeful note and with an eye to an ever wider future. Kathy Muir is a major talent who’s star only continues to ascend through the firmament of modern life.

Scott Wigley, Bandblurb

Second Life album review

It isn’t uncommon for a band or individual artist to hit their first peak on their third album. The first two releases allow them time and chances to refine and deepen their vision in preparation for a third release where they tie the disparate threads together into a greater whole. With the release of her third full length album, Second Life, that moment has arrived for Kathy Muir. There’s a lot of traditional instrumentation on Second Life that smacks of the Americana genre, but it isn’t the only ingredient in her mix. Some of the songwriting has strong echoes of Muir’s Scottish ancestry, but there’s a broader based folk approach on those songs that is much more individual and less focused on re-creating a specific era.

“Better Man” is the album’s first stand out. It is simply unlikely anyone else could have written this song – Muir’s specific details and powerful narrative voice are highly individual gifts that even another gifted writer couldn’t have precisely duplicated. This is the spark of the special we listen and look for in new art. Muir isn’t singing about anything startlingly new, but she sings it from a profoundly personal place within. “Simply That” gives her a great vehicle to show off her blues chops. It doesn’t rely on a bevy of genre tropes from guitar or singer alike to be successful; instead, Muir and her musical cohorts get the feeling right without ever sounding imitative once. She comes thrillingly close to outright rockabilly on the track “Stop Messin’ Me Around” but there’s an arty edge that Muir returns you’d never locate in traditional rockabilly. Her vocal sounds ready to love, live, brawl, and gives the song an added spike in energy.

“Born by the Water” isn’t blues or rockabilly flavored, but it does have the same gritty energy defining those earlier songs. The music here is much more straight forward, less obviously stylish, but the lyrics are far more developed and full of imagery that Muir largely eschews in those earlier songs. The slow development of “Never Felt like a Woman” is one of the album’s overall highpoints and a definite achievement on the album’s second half. Muir’s vocal matches consideration and passion quite well and the technique required further enhance the song’s impact. Her cultural heritage definitely touches the song “Like Warriors” and the stately, windswept tempo of the track has a touch of the epic hard for any listener to deny. Those sorts of songs, however, do nothing to prepare Muir’s audience for the sheer inventiveness of the final track. The title song makes a number of shrewd decisions ensuring its artistic success. The first is placing Muir’s deeply affecting wail near the front of the mix and giving the classical backing enough sonic density to help carry her vocal. It’s a remarkable final moment and closes Second Life on a daring note.

There are few performers working today, in any genre, with this breadth of skill. Kathy Muir recalls the epochal talents of iconic performers brought back to life for our modern world. The sophistication, deliberate simplicity, and absolute honesty guiding this collection of songs are an unforgettable listening experience.

Joshua Stryde, Indiemunity

Second Life – ‘honed to a fine point both musically and lyrically’

There’s nothing regional about the talents of Kathy Muir. Her Scottish heritage, undoubtedly, influences her deep musical talents, but the songwriting driving an album like Second Life is more all encompassing, broader, and its roots inform it rather than dictate to it. She has largely outgrown the label Americana, but there’s still a strong cross-section of material present on the album that more than justifies it along with some other less frequently used classifications. In the end, this is just fine music, honed to a fine point both musically and lyrically, and such arts need no labels except for the merchants. Muir is certainly a member of the singer/songwriter school, but her sensibilities have a stronger literary bent than many working within the same arena.
“Lucky One” is a rather traditional offering from a singer/songwriter. It’s a variation on the relationship gone bad formula and pleasingly remains hazy enough on specifics that listeners can take away from it virtually anything they desire. “Better Man”, however, is the first indication that we’re working with something much different than the garden variety singer/songwriter – this is much more complicated fare than the typical meditation on a failing relationship and Muir perfectly captures subtle character dynamics with a minimum of words. It’s an excellent choice to alternate those opening songs with a stripped back blues like “Simply That” and the song title contributes to the feeling that it might have been quite a conscious decision. Muir does a superb job with the bluesy strains of this track without straining too hard and shows unflappable confidence through each line. “Honey Child” has some mild traditional country music influences, but it’s much more in a light pop vein than perhaps any other song on the album once the full arrangement begins. The acoustic guitar and vocal opening the song is extraordinarily beautiful.

The lockstep jaunt her collaborators achieve on “Stop Messin’ Me Around” is a highlight on the album and keeps Muir’s vocal bouncing and full of fire. There’s an almost rockabilly feel to the way that the band chases the song and it conveys more raw energy than probably any single track on Second Life. Things noticeably settle on “I Want to Lay Down”, a gently yearning love song that offers a deep glimpse into the beautiful folk textures she can pull from her heart. The urgency returns some in “Born by the Water” and Muir delivers a lyric here that surely rates as one of the finest of the eleven songs. The music has surprising simplicity, but Muir never fails to subvert that seeming simplicity at critical times for effect.

Another of those remarkable moments when Muir’s songwriting raises more than a notch above her contemporaries is “Never Felt like a Woman”. It’s a remarkable confession of vulnerability phrased with careful feeling and pinnacles of unbridled emotion. Second Life ends with the one-two punch of “Troubled Town” and the title song. The first is Muir alone with a piano and it has a powerhouse emotional impact. Muir carefully weaves her voice around the piano playing in an attempt to make their two voices reflections of one and succeeds. The finale brings her together with a broad orchestral backing that she matches up with quite well. It’s likely the album’s best lyric and vocal in many ways and, like elsewhere throughout Second Life, pours every bit of herself into the song.

Shannon Cowden, Indie Music Reviews

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Second Life ‘is all killer, no filler, and a sure candidate for album of the year’

The third full length album from Scottish born singer/songwriter Kathy Muir, Second Life, is an eleven song collection that continues in her tradition of bringing together elements of traditional American music, particularly its vocabulary, with influences from Scottish music history. This isn’t an academic exercise. While Muir clearly writes material personal and important to her, she has the pronounced skills of a mainstream popular songwriter and a number of the album’s tracks operate in a pure pop vein. The presence of violin throughout the track listing gives the songs a decidedly rustic and appealing quality. Many of the songs are distinctly modern despite their traditional trappings while those embracing bygone sounds do so without being crassly imitative.

The first truly signature track on Second Life is the second song “Better Man”. It’s a song that unfolds the way a good short story does – providing listeners with the incidents and context for its character’s lives within a condensed amount of space and making excellent use of melody. “Simply That” steps back from the high pop style heard on the album’s first two tracks in favor of a much more spartan, bluesy rendition that Muir takes control of from the first and dominates with her personality. The turn on “Honey Child” is straight out of the pop song handbook, but the acoustic guitar work removes some of the poppier aspects. The sincerity of the song is unmistakable, but it’s never so sentimental as to be rendered sickly sweet. “Stop Messin’ Me Around” has crackling electricity surrounding it – the song’s live feel helps it take off straight out of the gate and it never pulls back at any point. Muir is firmly in control throughout thanks to assertive vocals more than capable of keeping up with the musical backing.

“Born by the Water” chugs with a straight-ahead purpose and lyrics filled with terrifically evocative imagery. Muir’s ability to convey that imagery never lacks subtlety and conviction alike – she never forces things too much, but there’s no question that she’s with every single word. The spartan qualities of “Simply That” return on “Never Felt Like a Woman”, but without any of the blues idiosyncrasies of the earlier song and it gives Muir ample space to fill the song with her passionate vocal. “Like Warriors” recalls the traditional songs of Muir’s youth crossed with elements of Americana music. The tempo gives it a slightly cinematic feel and the backing harmony vocals give it an added ethereal quality. The sweeping piano lines of “Troubled Town” pair up nicely with Muir’s impassioned vocals. Second Life ends with a magnificent title song that moves with deliberate, stately grandeur completely different from the earlier songs and invested with a completely different amplitude of drama. It wraps the album up quite artfully and gives it a memorable conclusion that lingers in the consciousness long after the final note dies out. Second Life is all killer, no filler, and a sure candidate for album of the year.

William Elgin III, Gashouse Radio

ALBUM REVIEW: “Stunningly complete and beautiful”

Second Life album cover

Second Life album cover

The stunningly complete and beautiful third album from Scottish born singer/songwriter Kathy Muir is a cause for celebration. Second Life is an eleven song collection concentrating primarily on relationships, but it isn’t strictly a downbeat affair. Muir explores a full range of human emotions connected with the experience of sharing our lives with other people and her songwriting abilities enable her to create ideal sonic landscapes for exploring these themes. She has surrounded herself with a first class assembly of collaborators who help elevate the drama far above the mundane. Not all of the songs adhere to a strictly Americana label – instead, some utilize pop and rock song dynamics with unexpected musical approaches. The primary thrust of the album is acoustic, but there’s a rowdy spirit in some songs that undercuts the laid back feeling pervading the album as a whole.

Some of that rowdy spirit comes through on the first two tracks. “Lucky One” and “Better Man” both start out as muted acoustic based numbers but gradually build a head of steam before transforming into full blown band numbers by the second half of the song. The gradual mounting of tension on both tracks is handled with great patience and good instincts.

“Simply That” finds Muir moving backwards by design and serving up the album’s purest example of blues with a stripped back, essentials-only feel. She responds to the musical change of mood with her own shift downgear and brings a lot of surprising, to some perhaps, gravitas to her singing.

 

The lyrical content on the aforementioned songs is all quite superb, particularly “Better Man”.

“Stop Messin’ Me Around” revisits some of the album’s rowdy early spirit in a distinctly different package. The rockabilly thrust of the album is quite different from any preceding songs, but it isn’t a purist affair. Instead, it’s a retro nod with a strongly modern air and assertiveness that never becomes unduly aggressive or slips off the rails. “Born by the Water” features stunning lyrical imagery paired with a powerfully consistent, direct acoustic guitar attack. Muir’s voice, seemingly aware of the lyrical quality, sounds much more inspired here than her earlier fine performances and it helps make this track a less-than-obvious sleeper on the release.

The album’s second to last song, “Troubled Town”, is Muir at her most vulnerable. The song is nothing but her voice, words, and piano accompaniment. The songwriting and her singing must stand on their own more than ever before in this context both succeed spectacularly. “Troubled Town” has vividly written lyrical content that seems to focus on both the personal and a larger macro and the haunting music matching her on keys is perfectly tuned to the narrative mood. The album’s finale is a title song that hints at whole new directions possibly opening up for Muir. The union of classically themed backing with her vocals pays off nicely and creates a great deal of epic drama on Second Life’s final song. The lyrics also strike a strongly redemptive note that ends the album well.

Charles Hatton, Carlito’s Music Blog

October 20, 2016

Album Review: Muir delivers another mesmerizing vocal

Second Life album cover

Second Life album cover

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.

Jason Hillenburg, Skopemag

Kathy Muir – ‘Second Life’

Second Life out September 30th!

New album Second Life is out on September 30th. Over the coming days you’ll see more news about the making of Second Life, the collaborations, and a very special introduction to a very special artist Gareth Edwards. So, check out the news page and my blog each day.

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