On her third solo album, Mikal Shapiro essentially divides the songs into two sides. And it's tempting to line up "Act One" and "Act Two" as songs of innocence answered, track for track, by songs of experience.
Opening Act One is “Nope,” a call to a magical party of “flying squirrels and bonobos”; Act Two's opener, “2 String Blues,” is about a party for survival. The haunting side-one deadend of “Daniel” is answered by side two's “The Reincarnation of Helena Blavatsky,” a song filled with eternal possibility. “Chimo” sounds an ambivalent warning, answered by the hard-won assurance of “This Way to Heaven.” A playful look at love, “Hot Cool,” gets balanced by “Out on the Town’s” junction of freedom and commitment. The end of Act One, "Here & Now," is directly echoed by "Looking Back" at the end of Act Two, the characters in both songs wanting to be in the present, but all of them slipping away.
That’s one reason to admire The Musical: It works as an album based upon a series of contradictions — songs lyrically in dialogue with one another. The music itself, though, is based upon a series of contrasts: Urban jazz sounds rub up against rural waltz rhythms, Saturday-night blues are followed by Sunday-morning gospel, personified animals dance with Mexican fishing villagers and Ukrainian spiritualists.
Shapiro ties it all together with her plaintive yet playful vocals, getting enormous help from a team of area greats. In particular, Chad Brothers’ guitar, Johnny Hamil’s bass, Matt Richey’s drums and Emily Tummons’ harmonies maintain a cohesive structure infinitely shifting with light and color.
Shapiro’s lyrics earn every bit of the lift these soundscapes offer. When she tells you about a man in Chimo, Jalisco, “passed out with the rest of the saints, asleep in the pews,” you want his story. Memorable turns of phrase abound, such as those that keep waltz time in “Here and Now”: “I can’t remember forgetting/The slow dance of dread we were doing/The crazy eyes/The angry drives/That sped down the road to our ruin.”
What I might like even better is Shapiro’s willingness to find the play in a line that isn’t particularly clever, just real: “We took it too far/For far too long/Just to watch it disappear.” That's from “Looking Back,” which is one of my favorite moments here. It begins with feedback and mournful, almost menacing, bass. Mike Stover’s pedal steel searches through the darkness while Shapiro keeps checking her rearview mirror, and the end of the song is like a slow-motion wreck — all of the sounds careening into a grim whirlpool.
That's a moment of greatness on a very consistent record, an exquisite vulnerability matched only by the devastating “Daniel.” That one’s a contemplation of suicide. It’s all unresolved mystery, and that’s the point. Tambourine joins drums in the rock-and-roll struggle of Shapiro’s voice and Brothers’ guitar as they search for meaning. While many of this album’s songs feel like fragments in search of resolution, the alarming stop at the end of this cut carries its own weight.
An associate editor of the newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential, Danny Alexander teaches writing and literature at Johnson County Community College. His new book Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige will be published in spring 2016 by the University of Texas Press.