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