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.
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.
’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.
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.