Release Date: Apr 15, 2016
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Review Summary: Alongside the campfire and under the stars, Kevin Morby gives us a folk album for the ages.I can still remember helping my father clean out our basement when I was ten years old and stumbling upon a box full of old, dusty records. On the top was a completely clean – if a little faded – copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Even after the decades that separated that moment from the album’s 1966 release date, it seemed like he always found a reason to come back to it.
What can a grown man who sings, without a trace of irony, about his swear jar and wilting flower garden add to the Americana canon? Plenty, it turns out. While Kevin Morby’s first two albums, Harlem River and Still Life, found the singer/songwriter intermittently plagued by moments of fear and doubt, Singing Saw grapples more readily and deeply with darkness. As made clear by “I Have Been to the Mountain,” the album’s rather stunning lead single and Morby’s tribute to Eric Garner, there’s a trouble that comes with wide-eyed observation—sometimes you see too much.
I used to imagine Kevin Morby's arrival in New York from Texas sort of like Jon Voight's at the beginning of Midnight Cowboy. Big ideas, big plans, big boots. If you've seen the movie, you know that maybe this isn't the most flattering comparison. That's life, though—not everyone can be talented enough to make it, and sometimes, leaving your fry-cook job (or, in this case, your steady bass-playing job in the band Woods and high-tailing it to L.A.) simply isn't the right decision.
Kevin Morby speaks the language of records. His spare acoustic sound pulls from the late ’60s and early ’70s, particularly Bob Dylan in baroque country mode, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and Lee Hazlewood. But where the well-read novelist Cohen was comparing mythologies and Hazelwood held forth like a wizened industry cynic, Morby’s earlier work refracted meaning through the lens of his record collection.
Singer-songwriter Kevin Morby’s third solo album reveals that, at 28, he’s an old head on young shoulders. When not sounding uncannily like Bob Dylan (Water), the former member of Brooklyn psych-folk outfit Woods is worrying about his mental powers (“Will I lose my mind?” he sings on Ferris Wheel) and evoking the Band’s warped Americana. There are allusions to the modern world – I Have Been to the Mountain tackles police brutality – but Morby’s serene folk-rock moves back and forth through time.
Kevin Morby may be a new name to many, although he has already amassed a substantial catalogue through work with two bands (along with Cassie Ramone he is one half of Vivian Girls and, until recently, was bass player in Woods, contributing to four of the band’s albums). He has also made two albums as a solo artist, both very much in a singer-songwriter space with laudable but predictable reference points. Singing Saw finds Morby making a substantial leap forward.
Kevin Morby’s records have always blurred the line between his imagination and real life. Harlem River (2013) was a song-cycle describing experiences from his past life in New York, having moved to Los Angeles. Still Life (2014) widened its focus on a more abstract set of characters drawn from his new life. While experimenting more and more in the studio and fine-tuning his powers of storytelling, he still kept one foot on the ground.
Back in 2012 Kevin Morby was part of a who’s who of American indie rock that gathered to perform a full 41- song tribute to The Band’s swan song The Last Waltz. It’s clear then that his chops, understanding and respect for “the greats” are undeniable But on his third album he takes as a starting point an old piano and a simple, eerie instrument in the form of the singing saw. The latter appears on two tracks here, and is a ghostly but never unwelcome presence.
On his first two albums, Kevin Morby made a name for himself as a singer/songwriter with a finely burnished voice, sensitively wrought lyrics, and a good ear for arrangements. On his third album, and first for Dead Oceans, Morby worked with producer Sam Cohen (of Yellowbirds) to expand his sound a little, while still staying true to the honest approach he'd almost perfected already. The duo surround Morby's trenchant songs with a rich tapestry of sound, adding keyboards, electronic squiggles, mariachi horns, backing vocals, and even singing saws to the mix.
On his third solo album, former Babies and Woods member Kevin Morby continues the outstanding melodicism and fascinating introspective songwriting that he’s become synonymous with ever he made his debut solo album in 2013. But the LA based songwriter’s third release on Dead Oceans wouldn’t be nearly as interesting had he not pushed his creative senses beyond the boundaries expected of him further than ever before. You only have to listen to an acoustic session of tracks for this album to realise how far his sound has come from its roots.
When pressing play on Singing Saw, Kevin Morby’s third solo album, it’s a surprise to find that the weary voice behind this contemplative, spiritual work is only 28. Further, Morby’s career to this point has been lengthy and loaded, having spent extensive tenures as both the bassist for psych folk group Woods and the co-vocalist for The Babies, his group with Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls. Morby’s already had a long career and been able to indulge varying inclinations, and the blues-filled folk of his first two solo albums after leaving both projects felt like a natural extension.
The butterfly effect works in mysterious ways. Especially so for Kevin Morby, whose elegant third album ‘Singing Saw’ is somewhat in debt to the previous tenants of his place in hilly L.A. suburb Mount Washington. Having left an upright piano behind them, Morby quickly took to mastering the instrument and composing the tracks that would end up on his Dead Oceans debut.
The singing saw is an unlikely instrument, a woodshop tool given tremulous, wavery voice with a bow and a bit of hard-won skill. Here on Kevin Morby’s third album under his own name (he’s done lots more with Woods and Babies), it is played by John Andrews. The saw is the first sound you hear on the record, an eerie, keening tone that reinforces the mystic vibe of “Cut Me Down,” while also reminding us that music can come from anywhere, permeates everything and regularly transcends its sources.
Our latest installment of Quick Takes may be up a little bit later than usual, but bear with us - with so many surprise releases, from Radiohead to James Blake to Drake, we've been just as overwhelmed as all of you trying to keep up. But that doesn't stop us from acknowledging some records that we ….
Welcome to ‘Singing Saw’, a surreal world of death, love and murder populated by vultures, coyotes and one wandering man on the verge of losing his mind. That man is Kevin Morby, a 28-year-old folk singer from Kansas City whose world-weary tales ooze the influence of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. The setting is Mount Washington, a lush, green hillside neighbourhood above Los Angeles where Morby settled after leaving New York – and his previous bands Woods and The Babies – behind in 2013.
Kevin Morby Singing Saw (Dead Oceans) New York is a curious mise-en-scène for Kevin Morby. At 28, he's taken on a prophetic tone even as most of his fellow Brooklyn millennials are still figuring out how to pay the bills. His third solo album, Singing Saw, draws on his childhood, from the wide plains of Lubbock to the vast Midwest. The ex-Woods bassist carries his former group's local folk aesthetic into his solo work, but the dreamy title track, which dulls the rigid edges of its tool of choice into an eerie drift, emerges more expansive than Woods' chunky interpretations, adding blues riffs to the stark acoustic pickings.