Wednesday, May 4, 2016

album review: 'singing saw' by kevin morby

So I don't cover a lot of music from the indie folk rock scene - and believe it or not, I actually have a reason. Several reasons actually, the first being volume, because it seems like every other week I hear about a new up-and-coming indie folk songwriter that I need to hear and most don't really impress me. I used to define it as a general aversion to the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' subgenre, but it runs a little more complicated: when you strip down the sound to the bare essentials, those essentials all need to be great working order or the flaws stand out all the more. And yeah, part of it is the fact that when you've heard so much singer-songwriter music, your bar when it comes to compositions or lyrics tends to be quite high - and I'll be blunt and say that a lot of this material can get tedious or pretentious if the writing or instrumentation doesn't step up.

And those were a lot of the thoughts I had before looking to cover Kevin Morby, most notable as being the former bassist of indie rock band Woods before going solo in 2013. And when I checked out his two previous records to this... well, they have their moments, I guess. I was never really gripped much by the songwriting - it always felt a little too self-serving and lacking in storytelling chops, with none of the writing having any sort of flair or punch - but a lot of the production and composition was nice, and I always appreciated a commitment to solid mix balances. But it wasn't until the second album Still Life where I saw the long shadow of The National hanging over Kevin Morby, especially in the vocal production and the blend of alternative country and modern folk rock influences - and look, I love The National, but I don't need a sleepier version of a group that already has trouble with momentum.

That said, this record has been getting a suspicious amount of critical acclaim, so I figured what the hell and checked out Singing Saw - how did it go?

Well, I'll say this: I can understand this record's appeal on some level. Hell, I get its appeal to most critics: it's got the sort of middle-brow, approachable, Oscar-bait feel that could feel very pleasant on a lazy August afternoon barbecue if you were terrified of offending anyone with your music selection. And that's probably the most appropriate word to describe this record, inoffensive - and yet on some level, this record just did not sit well with me at all. For as much as this record is obviously indebted to history and tried to add more gentle bombast and swell, all I got was a tepidly-performed, bizarrely-produced, and pretentious indie folk release that is somehow less interesting than every descriptor I just raised! 

Well, okay, maybe that's not fair, so let's start with our frontman Kevin Morby himself... and look, I get it. I get the half Bob Dylan, half Matt Berninger thing he's doing - for a roughly middle-brow singer-songwriter going through an extended midlife crisis and a nostalgia kick, it's an easy sound to work with. But when the comparison is that close, you immediately start noticing where Kevin Morby pales in comparison, and it's not just the songwriting. Sure, there's just enough reverb to give him gravitas and make it all so very tasteful, but Dylan and Berninger could both bring raw presence or at least a subtle emotive edge that helped suck you into their delivery. Morby doesn't quite have that level of subtlety, or a sense that any of his earnest songs have a layer of subtext - and yet on the same note he never really inflates his presence to sing with real passion, certainly not enough to match the attempt at soul of his female backing vocals. And considering this a record that's trying for more bombast than ever, falling this flat is a real problem.

And it's not like I'm not going to give credit to his instrumentation for trying here. This is easily Kevin Morby's most lavish instrumentation to date, matching a selection of watery acoustics, jagged electric tones and sparse drum lines with strings, horns, and some attempts at piano and drum machines that unfortunately fall way more flat than they should, the most egregious example being the slight fizzy beat, single tapping piano note and weird compressed fragment in the outro on the title track that doesn't remotely fit the rest of the textures in the song at all. Granted, that lack of cohesive production is all over this record - the title track is the most egregious example because it runs for seven minutes, which is about three minutes too long - but take the oddly sharp handclaps or mariachi horns in 'I Have Been To The Mountain' that don't remotely fit with the more rustic, faded textures, or the oddly oily strings on the opener 'Cut Me Down', or the horns and strings on 'Destroyer' that's pleasant but feels kind of inert and lacking in support by clunky verses and a painfully basic piano line. And then we get to the points where Morby and his producers seem to handicap their own momentum, the most egregious case being 'Dorothy', which actually had some buzzy punch but at the end of certain early verses cuts itself off prematurely to indulge in these painfully clumsy piano and horns snippets. And sure, I get the lyrical significance of doing it, but it doesn't make it feel any less clunky. The instrumentation does improve near the end of the record - 'Black Flowers' has a little more bounce to it thanks to the deeper drums and some cute subtle piano flourishes, and 'Water' builds off a psychedelic soul vibe to some hints of steel guitar - but even then it feels too little, too late. None of this instrumentation has deeper punch or much momentum, and with the odd clashes of texture doesn't have much atmosphere either - it doesn't lead to much of a cohesive sound when the guitars and drums have thicker effects that don't carry over to the pianos or other instrumentation.

But fine, most of this sort of low key music relies on the strength of its songwriting and themes, with the more reserved and tepid tones drawing more attention to the writing... and yet that might not be a good thing. And here's the thing: I know my own preferences when it comes to songwriting, I tend to have a liking for intricate wordplay that really isn't Kevin Morby's style the same way it is Berninger's or Dylan's, but Dylan knew how to strip things down to the basics and still write a powerful song. But even then there needs to be a baseline of quality when it comes the writing to make it stand out, and I'm not convinced Kevin Morby brings it on this album. For one, the writing here is so broadly sketched and basic that even as a play for populism it feels thin: warm like a fire, strong like a horse, pale like a moon, empty like a room, water as an obvious symbol of rebirth, a garden overgrown with black flowers representing a dead relationship, a ferris wheel and carousel representing the flow of life, can you not try a little harder than this? And then you get the painfully awkward writing like on the stilted flow of 'Destroyer' or this line from 'Water': 'to grow old, to grow distant/like a mare in the distance' - seriously? But okay, even with that, people have made the excuse that it all adds up to something deeper, so let's look at themes. And from what I can gather, Singing Saw is basically a nostalgia trip - Morby sees the end in sight and tries to recapture the past he feels slipping away... you know, at the tender age of 28. And here's the thing: if I bought that this record had any self-awareness, you could argue the subtext is commenting on a man who cannot move on from the past, which might excuse the clumsiness of 'Dorothy' trying to recreate those old moments, or the delirious balladry of 'Drunk And On A Star'. Hell, I might even be able to excuse 'I Have Been To The Mountain', where Kevin Morby calls out for God at the injustice of Eric Garner's death at the hand of the cops by broadly co-opting Martin Luther King's words which on the next song he references to circle back to his own context... yeah, on second thought, there's no excusing that, that's just symptomatic of the self-obsession that plagued his first two albums and hits a really sour note here. And yet all of that could have been redeemed if he at least realized by the end that time's passage is inevitable and you need to move on with your life... but nope, 'Water' tilts straight into nostalgia and yearning for that rebirth, to put out the fire of youth and drive, which completely neuters any earnest dramatic arc and stinks of the cowardice to face reality.

And I can already hear what some of you are saying, 'Well, maybe when you get older you'll understand his feelings', but you know something? When Uncommon Nasa released his album Halfway last year, taking stock of the halfway point in one's life and making serious reconciliation with death, it connected as one of my favourite albums of the year because it took chances, confronted reality, and didn't have writing so basic that it would embarrass your average high school class. I get going for broad universal themes where each word is more than the sum of the parts - Bill Callahan does this exceptionally well - but when your instrumentation goes for 'bombast' that is not matched with any nuance in the delivery or writing, you get an album that might be pretty but lands with a cold, colourless thud. This record is pretentiousness personified, and yet is played way too earnestly to be any fun and with too many production issues to build substantial atmosphere. For me, it's a 4/10 and absolutely no recommendation - but I'm probably going to forget this record exists in a day or two, and I imagine you will too.

1 comment:

  1. FINALLY. You nailed it. I had to seek out your review but finally I've found a reviewer who's sniffed out the pretentiousness of this album. I was initially drawn in by the music but slowly it began to dawn on me that this guy is like an onion that's inedible at the centre.