Not surprisingly, Shawn Mullins' association with Sony didn't last long. His sophomore release for the label never found its intended audience, and with eclectic singer/songwriters not exactly in vogue in 2005, he found a more comfortable and logical home at Vanguard. Here was a company that thrived on, and had successful experience with, promoting other artists with idiosyncratic folk and folk-rock styles similar to Mullins. The feeling was mutual, since Mullins delivers a gem of an album with 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor.
With acoustic tracks recorded at the titular New Orleans studio, pre-Hurricane Katrina, Mullins has crafted a diverse offering that encompasses folk, rock, Celtic, and country, often interlocking in the same tune. He aims for early Black Crowes territory on the gospel-laced "Faith," and gives a personal spin to a self-penned murder ballad "Cold Black Heart," which is dominated by his work on charango, an Andean mandolin. The mandolin also plays a prominent role in "Homemade Wine," a moody story-song ballad about leaving town that takes advantage of Mullins' deep, expressive voice. "All Fall Down" finds its rocking heart in the Beatles' "I Want You," especially as it builds in intensity with circular chords that accentuate the melody. The disc's first single, the harder-edged "Beautiful Wreck," is also better than anything on the short-lived Thorns' project, a band in which Mullins shared the stage with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge (Droge helped co-write the track). Mullins goes traditional religious on the waltz-timed "Lay Down Your Swords, Boys," which culminates in full Salvation-Army-band mode with backing vocals. Mullins taps into his inner James Taylor on the bluesy "Solitaire," and closes out the album with a moving version of "House of the Rising Sun" that builds from acoustic to electric instrumentation as the singer interestingly takes the original female voice of the protagonist. The song seems to be his tribute to New Orleans, a city whose dusky atmosphere has subtly contributed to Shawn Mullins' most poignant, cohesive, and diverse album yet.