Over the years, I’ve maintained a short list in my head of musicians whose lack of a mass audience has puzzled me. Among the artists on that list is rocker Elliott Murphy, who has released more than 40 mostly exceptional albums since 1974. Nearly all of them have been gobbled up by his good-sized, largely European cult following, but he deserves a much bigger fan club.
The latest claim to fame for this artist—who has lived in Paris for decades but was born and raised in New York and often performs in the States—is Elliott Murphy Is Alive!. He often works with a full band, but on this CD, which preserves a 2008 concert in Brussels, Belgium, it’s just him and his longtime musical partner, guitarist Olivier Durand. Six of the 11 compositions come from Murphy’s then brand-new Notes from the Underground CD and another three first appeared on albums issued between 1999 and 2007. But Murphy digs deeper for the two show closers: his classic “Diamonds by the Yard,” from 1976’s Nightlights, and a cover of the Doors’ “L.A. Woman.”
As good as he is in the studio, Murphy is often even more compelling on stage. Start with any song in this set and you’re bound to be bowled over by the energy, the wordplay, the effusive vocals, the hook-laden melodies, and last but not least, Durand’s lightning-fast virtuoso guitar work, which makes clear why Murphy repeatedly shouts his accompanist’s name from the stage and gives him star billing on many of his albums.
The record opens with the folky, melancholy, and beautifully sung “Crepescule,” an introspective collection of reflections at twilight, which is followed by an equally mellow instrumental intro to “Sonny.” But about a minute into that second song, Murphy and Durand put a foot on the gas and move full speed into rock territory, where they stay through much of the rest of the show.
In “Sonny,” their guitars are (to quote the lyric) “flying like a bird” as the song’s protagonist talks to his imprisoned son about the breakup of the father’s marriage, promises not kept, and a heart turned to stone. Equally powerful—and hard-rocking—are “Green River,” “Canaries in the Mind,” and “Razzmatazz,” the latter imbued with colorful lines like “Sitting on my left is my righthand man / I’m standing on a trap door to Disneyland / Packed in my luggage all my worries and woes / Come on, Delilah, let’s go.”
Also among the best cuts are the aforementioned show closers. The anthemic “Diamonds by the Yard,” on which the audience sings along, boasts some of Durand’s finest guitar pyrotechnics, compelling vocals, and passionate lyrics (“Midnight I surrender / I live beneath your ancient spell / You’ve been my lover since I can’t remember / You saved my life with stories you tell”). And then comes the Doors cover, on which Murphy and Durand manage to stir up at least as much energy as Jim Morrison and company.
I can guess why this recording sat in the vaults for a decade: the year it was recorded, Murphy released Alive in Paris, which includes a CD with six of the same songs as well as a concert DVD with more overlap, such as another reading of “L.A. Woman.” That full-band effort was excellent, but so is this release, which contains substantially different versions. If, like me, you have a should-be-famous list, a little exposure to this set will probably be enough to put Murphy on it.
Ben Davis Jr., Suthernahia. As this album’s title hints, Ben Davis Jr. hails from southern Ohio, which is where he and his band the Revelry crafted this collection of built-to-last original material. Musically, it’s rooted in folk/Americana, but it’s spiced with elements of alt-country, rock, and even psychedelia. A frequent focus of the lyrics is love, and particularly love lost. On “Porchlight,” Davis declares, “If you don’t come back to me by tomorrow, darling, I’ll be dead.” Then there’s the set-closing “Carly,” in which the protagonist looks back on a high school relationship that dissolved after he and his girlfriend respectively turned to liquor and the needle. He pleads, “Come back to Jackson, let’s try this again,” but by the end of the song, it seems likely that she’s dead and that if any reunion is to happen, it will be in heaven. Davis’s vignettes are memorable and so is much of the music.
The Muffs, No Holiday. The Muffs, a Southern California punk rock trio led by songwriter, singer, and guitarist Kim Shattuck, have been recording and performing on and off since 1991. Recently, the Omnivore label has reissued their first three LPs and now there’s a new album set for October release—their first in five years. It’s loaded with potent pop melodies and endearing vocal work by Shattuck, and it features a production that manages to sound charmingly homespun but also polished enough for radio. The songs, like those on the earlier Muffs albums, are almost as concise as the Ramones’: there are 18 of them on this 45-minute CD, including three that run about 90 seconds each and one that clocks in at all of 38 seconds. I hear some echoes of early Blondie, Go-Gos, and Bangles as well as of the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album.
Sunny War, Shell of a Girl. Even if this latest collection from California’s Sunny War consisted solely of its instrumentation, it would have been noteworthy for her terrific fingerstyle guitar work. Add her superb vocals, which sometimes recall Joan Armatrading, and her poignant, contemplative lyrics, many of which reflect her difficult childhood and years of living on the streets, and you have one of the year’s best folk albums. Don’t come to it looking for lightness or upbeat melodies; the prevailing tone in many of these songs is melancholy; and War accompanies her moody music with lines that aren’t exactly, well, sunny. (The opening track, “Shell,” begins: “Before you rip your girl to shreds / be sure you really want her dead / by the time you realize you were wrong / You’ll find the girl you knew is gone.”) But while there’s pain on this album, there’s also a whole lot of beauty. It’s rare to find a little-known and self-taught singer, songwriter, and musician whose talent is this large and whose work sounds this mature.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.