CD Review of Love like a Mule by Stoll Vaughan

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Love like a Mule
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Shadowdog
Released: 2006
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There are two interesting facts about Stoll Vaughan – both tangentially related to Love like a Mule, but neither having anything to do with the actual music contained on the album – and they are as follows:

  1. Vaughan opened for Journey and Def Leppard this summer.
  2. His RV burned to the ground during the tour, leaving him with only the clothes on his back.

The first fact is interesting because Stoll Vaughan sounds nothing like either Journey or Def Leppard, and after listening to Love like a Mule, it’s impossible not to imagine the crowds at these shows sitting in stunned silence, lighters at half mast, waiting for something – anything – resembling an anthemic chorus.

The second fact, aside from being awful, is interesting because it represents the kind of soul-shaking experience that tends to make for a great song or two – thus increasing the likelihood of Vaughan’s next album being better than Love like a Mule.

This is not to say that Mule is a bad record, per se; it just isn’t a very good one. Vaughan’s sepia-tinted heartland rock has received a number of comparisons to John Mellencamp’s (likely due in part to Mule’s being produced by longtime Mellencamp foil Mike Wanchic), but any similarities between the two are superficial at best. Vaughan might share Mellencamp’s meat-and-potatoes ethos, but the erstwhile Johnny Cougar has always been an underrated pop songwriter in a rock & roller’s clothing – even at their corniest, his small-town tales have been wedded to widescreen arrangements, catchy and/or bombastic enough to transcend their limitations.

Vaughan, on the other hand, has a narrower focus, both lyrically and musically; his tales of loves and lives gone awry have more to do with Westerberg or Dylan at his more misanthropic. Unfortunately, Vaughan has neither Dylan’s observational gifts nor Westerberg’s rumpled charm, and what’s left over isn’t terribly interesting.

The set’s got its moments. Album openers “Alright” and “No Stopping” are effectively gritty, but they hint at what might be Mule’s main problem, which is that Vaughan doesn’t have the presence to pull off the scarred, world-weary pose he often aims for. In fairness, this is a problem compounded by Wanchic’s smoothly burnished production, which neuters most flashes of genuine personality that might have otherwise managed to slip through.

Vaughan’s been receiving generally positive attention since releasing Mule; this doubtless has a lot to do with the fact that not a lot of artists are making music like this anymore, but it should give him some time to find a more consistent, original songwriting voice. He’s definitely suffered for his art – only time will tell whether it’ll pay off for his listeners.

~Jeff Giles