Defining duality with lush arrangements and a world-weary voice
Leave it to a pensive Kansan to notice the coyotes in Los Angeles.
Kevin Morby is no stranger to releasing records, and his third solo effort (the first under label Dead Oceans) Singing Saw is polished and refined as the grown-up extension of a songwriter coming into his own. Where previous bands Woods and The Babies might psyche one out or provide a stellar sounding board for romantic angst, Kevin Morby shines as a solo artist on a spectrum that leans closer to Neil Young than Andrew McMahon, channeling retro folk with a rambling radiance. Singing Saw sprung up when Morby moved into a shabby hillside Los Angeles home that conveniently held a long-forgotten upright piano stacked beneath loose pieces of sheet music and an introductory book of common chords. Taking cues from this kismet appearance, Morby paired pensive thought with winding nighttime strolls in which the duality of the city itself seemed to emerge, crafting a surreal album that weaves fantasy and mortality with simple lyricism and lush orchestral arrangement. With the help of with Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds) in addition to pianist/keyboardist Marco Benevento, drummers Nick Kinsey and Justin Sullivan with Oliver Hill and Eliza Bag contributing strings, Alec Spiegelman on saxophone and flute, Cole Kamen-Green playing trumpet and John Andrews on the eponymous singing saw. Not to mention backing vocalists Hannah Cohen, Lauren Balthrop and Alecia Chakour – Singing Saw is a fully realized musical endeavor – a headphone record ready made for any thoughtful listener seeking food for thought.
Opening with “Cut Me Down,” Singing Saw kicks off with simplistic gospel centered on murderous subject matter, setting a morose and dreamy contemplative tone that the album will ping to and fro throughout. Morby has a talent for creating arousing moments that he strategically leaks in until bringing everything to fruition at the summit of the song. As an intro, “Cut Me Down” is humble and a little forgettable, with Morby shining through in the last minute’s build, catapulting off those vignettes he proposed earlier when uttering the hook and returning the track to solid finish. “I Have Been To The Mountain” is an essential Morby track, a seamless protest framed around the death of Eric Garner, bolstered with bold trumpet calls, orchestral pay off and the first chorale peek of soaring harmony. Title track “Singing Saw” sees use of repetition and a slow churning cadence over which Morby passively drawls before leading into a twangy, rambling guitar solo woven with whistling organ. “Singing Saw” stays lean before taking a trippy turn, with each ingredient standing alone until about four minutes in, when sounds start to marry each other and the track achieves true fluidity.
With elements of free jazz, gospel and folk, and self referential lyrics that avoid anachronisms, Singing Saw rings timeless – running the gamut between upbeat and morose while maintaining an introspective demeanor throughout. “Drunk And On A Star” is reflective and weary – the ideal long-walk song – slow, thoughtful and modest with a bevy of beautiful strings shining through as the true personality, while “Dorothy” is a fuzzed out and subtly distorted ode that picks things up with tinkling piano that recalls the sun-stained living room of the Glass family. Morby’s use of keys conjures simplistic vintage timing, a strain continued with the slowed down “Ferris Wheel,” a track that leans on lyrics, most notably with Morby breathing “I lose my mind sometimes.” A strong third album that recognizes the undersought value Los Angeles living can have on the soul versus the shinier, much reviled aspects of the city, Singing Saw proves that there is nature in everything, continuing Kevin Morby on his solid-solo artist trajectory.