Album Review: Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

You’re sitting on the coastline of a small, uninhabited island in the middle of the South Pacific. Sand burrows in the creases of your eyes and the corners of your cracked lips. The wind smells of birds. Behind you lie the remains of a small, wooden lifeboat — splintered and upside down; the oar rests upon your lap. An empty 7-UP can visits your feet, rolling up, rolling down, pushed in by the tide and retreating back with it. In the distance is a storm and you wait for its slow arrival, like a train approaching. You smile because you know there is hope in its dark clouds.

This is what it’s like listening to Kevin Morby’s powerful new record, Singing Saw. Put another, perhaps simpler way: it’s good, okay? Really, really good.

The type of good that resonates in the chest and reverberates in the blood. The type of good that sends you searching. The type of good that strands you on an island in the South Pacific.

Before establishing his minimalist and intimate song signature, Kevin Morby first navigated through the busy streets of Los Angeles’ indie music scene (The Babies, Woods). I’m not sure when I first heard the guy, to be honest, but the singer-songwriter’s sophomore album, Still Life, made my 2014 Best-Of List (the song “All of my Life” remains one of my favorite tunes).

Today, Morby has sharpened his sound — Millennial folk to the beat of Beck’s Sea Change and with the drawl of early Dylan. Not to say there isn’t energy lurking behind them calm waves. The first single from Singing Saw, “I Have Been to the Mountain,” punches in with bass, drums, horns, strings, a gospel choir and a guitar effect that can only be described as 1960’s sci-fi. The song is basically a Tarantino film, or say, a Bloody Mary on a sultry day. Recently, it landed on a Pitchfork summer festival mixtape (on the much-coveted leadoff spot of number one).

On a lesser album, “I Have Been to the Mountain” would’ve outshined and distracted from a quieter troop of songs, but on Singing Saw everything fits. “Cut Me Down” opens the record with a somber simpleness: “No one, no way to go/Step out of my shadow/Take me as I am/A man.” The lyrics are as taut as they are cryptic, and as they bounce off the echoes of the tremolo and the pounding drum of the floor tom you realize that atmosphere is king. The lyrics — not the instrumentation — are the negative space. The ability to let songs breathe, one could argue, is Morby’s greatest asset as a songwriter, and this asset is on display all throughout Singing Saw.

After the one-two punch of the first two numbers, Morby stretches song lengths thereafter with each track averaging five-minutes or so (with one exception). The moody title track of Singing Saw is a seven-minute gem. With guitar work that reeks of Eric Clapton and lyrics that could fill a children’s book, Morby sings, “Up the Hill/Past the houses/I sang a song then I/Came back down the mountain/All the while/Big moon above me/Old coyote/Laughing at me.” The song introduces us to the “singing saw” concept, an elusive motif Morby employs throughout the record. A singing saw, as I read it, is a tool that — like a regular saw — creates through destruction. For Morby, it’s a blessing and a curse and something he cannot escape. “Thought I saw a singing saw/Cutting down a willow/Then I saw the singing saw/Singing after me.”

“Dorothy” is as good a rock song as you’ll hear all year — thick guitars, driving energy, sharp hooks. You won’t hear it on rock radio, of course, because rock radio is still trying to convince us that Cage the Elephant is a thing that should exist. Doing more than getting the blood pumping, “Dorothy” donates a rare glimpse into an alternate universe, one where Kevin Morby — the ever intellectual and introspective songwriter — chants transparent, wordy pop songs about bad breath and going out: “Oh let’s go hit the town/And we can fill the room with smoke/You know I got the first round/As we tell all those stories told.” It’s an anthem for an anxious generation.

“Black Flowers” is arguably Morby’s standout track on Singing Saw. The beat, the instrumental texture (is that a wood block?), the crooning — its layers intertwine and bloom as if all songs before it were just seeds and water and sunlight. If you’re not paying attention you’ll miss the cynicism behind its almost gospel-like, hopeful tone, but take from it what you will. Not a happy song, nor is it a sad one, “Black Flowers” lives in the awkward, uncategorical space often occupied by Sufjan Stevens and later David Bowie.

Not without its missteps, albeit forgivable, Singing Saw occasionally suffers from saying too little and trades in what could be big moments for fleeting ones.

“Ferris Wheel” is the rare filler track that doesn’t add much to the conversation: a pretty piano part and some sentimental lyrics. One could argue that, sonically, “Ferris Wheel” balances the album, but this writer believes that songs must exist for reasons beyond pure utility. Here it plays like a piano song for the sake of a piano song — a slow jam stuck between two upbeat ones (that said, the song’s circular progression, much like a ferris wheel, is clever). The most frustrating song has to be “Water” — Singing Saw’s closing number. Not by any means a bad song, in fact it’s quite good. The problem with “Water” is that it’s safe, predictable and honestly kind of forgettable. I suppose you’re bound to release an average track that disappoints when almost everything else that’s come before it was spectacular. It is a well-documented problem that happens on many great albums; think back to your favorite records, isn’t there generally always one song you want to skip? (coughHolidaycoughWeezer).

All this to say, Kevin Morby has released my favorite new album of the year. The dark and moody Singing Saw may sound like it plays better for winter than it does summer, but don’t let that stop you. I believe Singing Saw plays best as a companion piece to the freeing and fleeting months of summer — a contrast to the throughput pop glued to summer airwaves. Play it on a night drive through the mountains, at a party behind the chatter, in a room with just you in it.

Sit on a coastline and watch the storm come.

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