Former Portico Quartet Hang-er (!?) Nick Mulvey caused quite the ruckus at the beginning of this year, during the annual Ones To Watch debacle across t’internet – the BBC in particular tipped him, longlisting him for the Sound Of 2014 (which was eventually snapped up by Sam Smith). With great expectations comes great responsibility, but Mulvey has resisted the hype vortex thus far, preferring to work at his own pace and let his music do the talking. A smattering of EPs have dripped out since 2012, not ever really breaking forth and cementing Mulvey as a genuine contender in the hearts of the general public, but with his first solo full-length on the way, and the backing of the BBC, that’s almost certainly going to change.
The Cambridge-born singer-songwriter has dumped his percussion instruments in favour of the trusty six-stringer for his debut LP, entitled First Mind. He’s a worldly musician, earning a degree in ethnomusicology from SOAS, and spending time in Brazil, Cuba and Morocco to learn his craft, and this shows in his immaculate fretwork that forms the bedrock of the album. There’s hints of Latin flamenco-ish guitar, like a sleepy Rodrigo y Gabriela, and twinges of Middle-Eastern and African rhythmic forces. Just because he’s selected a melodic instrument as his primary tool doesn’t mean he’s let his percussionist tendencies get away from him. Rhythmic, pace and structure sit equal with melody and harmony on First Mind, and that broad focus is precisely why it’s such an impressive record.
Not all the tracks are brand new to our ears though, but they’re no less effective. Obviously recent single “Cucurucu”, a rework of DH Lawrence’s poem “Piano”, is something we’ve heard before; the Mediterranean swoon of violin and luscious textural guitar are still brilliant, and it remains one of the album’s strongest cuts. Other familiar tracks include “April”, “Venus”, “Fever To The Form”, “The Trellis” and “Juramidam”. The latter is one of the record’s most intriguing numbers, with a locomotive bassline pounding away underneath frantic acoustic desert-rock akin to Breaking Bad‘s narcocorridos. It wields a swagger that singer-songwriters tend to avoid, and endears Mulvey to a pop world inhabited by the likes of Ed Sheeran. Make no mistake, he sounds nothing like Sheeran, but there’s every chance that’s where he can scoop fans in the chart world.
Mulvey’s spangly new efforts are no less grand. “Ailsa Craig”, named after a Scottish island famous for curling stone granite, gannets and for being the rough halfway point between Belfast and Glasgow. There is a misty Celtic glaze, created by rolling synth drones and minimalist ostinatos. It’s a strangely languid, rich ditty for Mulvey to indulge in, given the breeziness of much of First Mind, but it’s still a crowning achievement. “Meet Me There” is another effort that distances itself from Mulvey’s ‘method’. Mulvey flits between Ben Howard’s elongated croon and a roughly-hewn sprechsegang-cum-rap. The waltzing tune is frequently punctuated by strings, fretbuzz and cymbals, and veers towards atmospheric folk grandeur more often than you’d expect.
Nick Mulvey is clearly an extremely talented musician. It’s obvious to all onlookers that he can weave exceptional music with an apparent ease, and it’s something that translates to First Mind. It’s subtle, perhaps not as affecting – at least on first listen – as you’d expect from a singer-songwriter armed with violins and an acoustic guitar, but what it lacks in heart-wrenching emotional gravitas, it makes up for with sonic ingenuity the UK hasn’t seen in its charts in a long time. A total package of pop hooks, instrumental genius and gorgeous rhythms, Mulvey presents us with an intelligent record that demonstrates his passion for sounds outside of insular scenes.