Kevin Morby
Singing Saw


4.7
superb

Review

by SowingSeason STAFF
April 25th, 2016 | 87 replies


Release Date: 2016 | Tracklist

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. There are albums that are great and then there’s those that develop this sort of timeless quality – the kind of record in which you can picture yourself still reading the lyrics on the inside sleeve when you’re fifty. I’ve always wondered what my kids would be dusting off in my basement decades from now, and when I do, I tend to imagine it the context of what I’d find in my dad’s stockpile: The Beatles’ Abbey Road…The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed….Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Superb albums come and go every year, but very few ever reach that elite echelon of what I’d consider to be my all-time favorites. I already know a few that will be there: Brand New’s The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, mewithoutYou’s Brother, Sister, and perhaps Tigers on Trains’ Grandfather. Maybe it’s just reminiscing that has me feeling this way about Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw, and even though it would be entirely too hasty for me to place it in such elite company this soon, I can definitely say this: the album is showing all the tell-tale signs of becoming a modern day folk classic.

Sometimes the best experiences in music come with absolutely no prior background, and in this case my lack of familiarity with Kevin Morby didn’t diminish the album’s quality in any way. For those of you who are also just discovering his music, he’s the former bassist of Woods and frontman of The Babies – gone solo as of 2013. Believe it or not, Singing Saw is already his third full-length record, and it comes to us sounding like an album that took ten years to compose. It is masterful in its craft yet as free-spirited and imaginative as you’ll find in today’s era of new-wave, commercial folk. In fact, Singing Saw is the opposite of that scene – it’s rich and scenic in its imagery, and every lyric feels intimate. Each individual track has something about it to make it seem entirely unique and worthwhile, which is even more impressive when you consider that the album is stronger as a cohesive unit. I’d equate the entire experience to camping out under the stars, letting the most beautiful folk music serenade you while you ponder life and its implications. It’s almost spiritual; and it’s an excellent spot to be introduced to Morby’s solo work regardless of your familiarity with his past musical endeavors.

Singing Saw is comprised of influences from all over the musical spectrum, all of which fit quite comfortably. The record commences with the sluggish, semi-paranoid ‘Cut Me Down’ before erupting into soulful jubilation – complete with mariachi-style horns – on ‘I Have Been to the Mountain.’ It goes from a haunting, folktale-like epic in the seven minute title track to an all-out jam session in the rollicking ‘Dorothy.’ The eclectic approach employed here prevents the album from ever stagnating, and it’s always offering a slightly different twist around each and every corner. There are no huge bids in Morby’s approach, but that’s part of what makes it feel so natural, honed-in, and modest. He lets cleverly-placed subtleties do all of the heavy lifting for him. The sprightly piano line and choir backing to ‘Black Flowers’, the string-laden bridge woven into ‘Drunk and on a Star’, the Americana influences of ‘Water’ – these are mere tweaks in Morby’s songwriting, but every time you can feel the Earth move. It takes an advanced level of creativity and songwriting skill to conceive such ideas, and it’s an even rarer phenomenon to find someone who can deliver them with the beauty, power, and refinement that Morby does here.

It’s always a challenge to select the perceived highlights from an album that is, for lack of a more objective descriptor, perfect – but there are a few cuts here that capture a little bit more of the spark that makes Singing Saw such a memorable and moving experience. The first such moment we encounter is ‘I Have Been to the Mountain’, which swells with one of the most gorgeous backing choirs that I’ve ever heard. As Morby paints an image of both religion and war: “Bleeding sky, cry for hours / dropping peace bombs, collecting prayers / scarlet mirrors, scarlet stains”, one can’t help but feel the relevance of Singing Saw as more than just a musical statement. Shortly thereafter, we get the emotional, swelling chorus of ‘Drunk and on a Star’, in which Morby sounds dizzied, dream-like, and transcendent. There’s one moment in particular, as he leads into the second rendition of the chorus, that’s truly haunting: “Have you heard the schoolyard singing , I swear they're calling out your name.” It feels like one of those lines that should mean more than what it does, and with the rising inflection in his voice, that’s almost a certainty. It’s just up to the listener to decide exactly what to take away from it.

Singing Saw’s epicenter is most certainly ‘Dorothy’; for one thing it resides exactly in the middle of the nine-track album, and for another is it by far the record’s most energetic piece. Whereas most of Singing Saw looks for different ways to expand upon itself, ‘Dorothy’ just moves straight forward and lets every aspect of the music fly. It truly feels like an improvised jam session when placed alongside the rest of the album – the electric guitars are slightly amped up, the drums are faster and more prominent, and Morby’s vocals come alive with passion. Some lively piano notes eventually join in, along with some distant ooh’s, and by the time you reach the back end of the track’s runtime it sounds like everything that Morby has kept up his sleeve is finally being employed in uninhibited and fully dynamic harmony. It’s easily one of the best and most accessible cuts from the album. Last but not least, the penultimate track ‘Black Flowers’ feels like the definition of a late-album gem. The soft-stomping rhythm gives it a rural back country vibe, while the delicate but sprightly pianos and beautiful la-la-la’s breathe life into its melody. Morby’s vocals have drawn many comparisons to Dylan, and while that association is more apt at certain times than it is at others, this is definitely ones of those moments. Anyone who is familiar with Dylan’s body of work will immediately make the connection upon hearing his delivery here, particularly during the memorable chorus of “In the garden where we built a home, and the roads we once built are corroded / the winged horses that we once rode are all strung out and spun out you know.” As far as the slower ballads on Singing Saw go, ‘Black Flowers’ is most likely to stop you in your tracks with its vivid beauty and poetic lyrics.

Singing Saw is one of those albums that immediately captures your interest, but offers enough depth and hidden intricacies to make every subsequent listen just as rewarding. Ten days after its release and at least fifteen listens in, I am still uncovering new things about it every time. It might be the smallest little detail, such as a vocal inflection or guitar lick that I hadn’t previously noticed, or an elevated level of emotion during a verse. I think that is what has me so excited about what Singing Saw can become; each time I listen to it I feel something entirely new and equally as profound. It’s already one of the best albums of 2016 and there are plenty of corners that I haven’t even scratched the surface of exploring yet. It possesses that timeless quality that I mentioned earlier – it’s the kind of album that is worth physically owning just to have something to put on the shelf and let your children or grandchildren dust off years from now. The only problem is that I’m not sure it will ever be afforded that opportunity – because right now it’s too damn good for me to even bother putting back it in the case. This is one of the year's top-tier folk records, and I'd venture to say it is a must-own for even the most casual fan of the genre.




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user ratings (123)
Chart.
3.7
great

Comments:Add a Comment 
SowingSeason
Moderator
April 25th 2016


24597 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Yes, it's that good.

Digging: The National - Sleep Well Beast

Hopelust
April 25th 2016


2707 Comments


Sounds like it!

Pangea
April 25th 2016


2697 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Amazing album

hesperus
Contributing Reviewer
April 25th 2016


873 Comments


Listened to the embedded track and thought, "Eh, that was pretty cool." I certainly liked it more than I thought I would given that Tallest Man On Earth was one of your RIYLs.

Digging: Chelsea Wolfe - Hiss Spun

Atari
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2016


22536 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

YES



gonna have to wait until my lunch break to read this beast, but I'm so glad this album got the sowing treatment. This guy's amazing, really digging his last album "Still Life" as well. Only modern folk artist I can think of that may have as much potential as the tallest man on earth

theBoneyKing
April 25th 2016


11686 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Amazing review Sowing, I love the personal touch you used here!



It sounds like this is a required listen for me, I'll jump on it asap.



(FYI, you referred to the album as Seeing Saw a few times, once in the fourth paragraph and twice in the fifth.)

Digging: The National - Sleep Well Beast

TheBarber
April 25th 2016


3518 Comments


This is THE thing that I needed rn, album came out just at the right time

SowingSeason
Moderator
April 25th 2016


24597 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Ugh, thanks Boney. I must have been getting a little weary by the end of the review but I fixed it now.



Glad people are sharing my enthusiasm for this so far.

Sinternet
April 25th 2016


14457 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

damn 2016 has thrown up some fantastic surprises so far

Digging: Counterparts - You're Not You Anymore

Atari
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2016


22536 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

review is outstanding, I'm a bit jealous of your ability to pump out these enormous reviews like it's nothing haha. I didn't even have time to read this one before you pumped out another massive one with that strumbellas write-up!

InfamousGrouse
April 25th 2016


4270 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

been hearing great things about this everywhere - will check

RVAHC13
April 25th 2016


826 Comments


"I have been to the Mountain" is a certified banger

SowingSeason
Moderator
April 25th 2016


24597 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Thanks Atari that's nice of you to say - I just was trying to catch up on releases I either wanted to review or had dibbed. I definitely wanted this to get more exposure, I could hardly believe it went this long without a review.



And yeah, my VERY loose ranking (because I love all the songs) would be:



I Have Been To The Mountain

Dorothy

Black Flowers

Drunk and on a Star

Water

Ferris Wheel

Destroyer

Singing Saw

Cut Me Down

Atari
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2016


22536 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I wouldn't rank I have been to the mountain as high as you, but Dorothy and Black Flowers are definitely two of my favorites as well. Lately I've actually been loving destroyer, it just has such a chill vibe and I love the Jazz influences in the second half of the song. This really is one of those albums where my favorite tracks are pretty interchangeable haha, and I agree about uncovering something new upon each listen

SowingSeason
Moderator
April 25th 2016


24597 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Right now it's basically a tie between I Have Been To The Mountain and Dorothy for my favorite, although pretty much everything on my list down through Destroyer are all 4.0+ tracks IMO. Even Cut Me Down and Singing Saw are still top notch, just not on the same level yet for me. Man this whole thing is just so damn good.

Pangea
April 26th 2016


2697 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I have been to the mountain and dorothy are favs yeah. Both soty contenters

Itwasthatwas
April 26th 2016


1367 Comments


Yeah this pretty cool

anatelier
Contributing Reviewer
April 26th 2016


1931 Comments


If I don't much like the embedded track should I still bother with the album?

SowingSeason
Moderator
April 26th 2016


24597 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

I'd say do a quick search for Dorothy and if you dislike it also then this probably isn't for you

torts
April 26th 2016


4300 Comments


this seems like such samey folk stuff to me. I'll give this a listen but the first two tracks don't leave me with much to anticipate



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