ALBUM: Singing Saw ARTIST: Kevin Morby
Album release date: April 15 / 2016
The Tortured Serene
His face is kind, and his eyes cast about pensively, as though he’s searching for words to convey his person without revealing more than is safe or seemly. Certain intimate glimpses are dropped casually – things that reveal him in spite of his efforts to safeguard his privacy: “I was walking by the river in the city [in Harlem]… It’s very peaceful there … and I began to converse with it. I went home and wrote a song about that conversation.” He ducks his head self-consciously and scratches his scraggly, unkempt hair with a nervous hand, and then shifts gears to discuss production – a safer subject..
Though Kevin Morby is based out of L.A., his approach to life, music, and suffering is antithetical to the self-gratifying, materially-bound vacuum that is Silicone Valley. There is not a trace of smug irony in his reserved affect: he is sincere, in part because he is not trying to appear so.
Morby has been in the music world for quite some time. Though not yet 30, the past decade has seen him in two bands – The Babies and Woods (in which he played bass) – and he has had an impressive solo career as well, recording three albums of his own, with Singing Saw being the latest.
Having moved from Kansas City as a high-school drop-out to Brooklyn (intoxicated by the lure of New York as it is so glossily depicted in the movies), Morby worked various odd-jobs while playing music throughout the early 2000’s, playing in the aforementioned bands until moving out to L.A. with an eye on releasing an album of his own devising. The first of these albums was entitled Harlem River, and the second Still Life: both were well-received by public and critics alike. None of his work up to this point, however, has received the attention and enthusiasm of his latest release Singing Saw, which is a brilliantly executed homage to American folk-rock.
The Murmuring Anger of a Political Prophet
The album opens with one of the strongest songs on the album, a track called Cut Me Down. It’s an atmospheric affair, with shivery strings and a vaguely dissonant guitar riff laced throughout. Immediately, the comparison to Bob Dylan is drawn: there’s no avoiding the fact that Morby sounds similar to the nasally, long-voweled musician, though with a decidedly richer, more melodious tone. His image-rich, poetic lyrics have the same element of mystique one finds in the writings of Leonard Cohen. “You’re going to do, what you came here to do: so why not do it now, oh, and cut me down,” Morby sings wistfully, almost as though he’s thinking aloud to himself. By the end of this first tune, I was taken in: the mood had been set, and I was gladly under the spell of this brooding, old-school musician.
Further following in the steps of true folk musicians, who traditionally acted as canyons in which the echoes of culture were caught, turned around, and thrown back with urgency and amplitude, Morby’s second song on the album, I Have Been to the Mountain, is a direct response to the brutal murder of Eric Garner at the hands of a police officer: the song wades through the ravages of death, injustice, and the afterlife via allegory and symbolism. It also has one of the sickest bass-lines I’ve heard in a long while. This is the most politically-pointed song on the album though if I hadn’t heard Morby explain its inspiration, I likely wouldn’t have known that. This is because like the rest of the songs, its strongest flavor – over-riding the taste of anger at human injustice – is that of the prophet: Morby’s lyrics have deeply, darkly spiritual/religious roots.
Musically, this album is laconic but rich: like good olive oil, it heightens, absorbs, and reinvents many tones and ingredients with subtle complexity, never deviating from its honest task. Morby doesn’t feel the need to prove his brilliance: he’s just out to make good music, and he knows how. Tempos shift, instruments lilt and tear, background vocals swell like hungry souls by the river-side, infectious bass-lines roll along under the touch of a skilled musician’s hand: all while this modern-day old-soul sings about the essential questions that haunt us beneath our urgently distracted facades.
I’m glad for this pensive man from Kansas: this forthcoming, seasoned, melancholy man with a righteous fire in his blood and a knack for weaving words. Singing Saw will enrich your autumn and awaken your good-music genes.