Kevin Morby is the former bass-player in Woods, as well as a founding member of The Babies, alongside Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls. Kevin is now a solo artist in his own right and recently released his third album, Singing Saw. The album was recorded with producer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen, who Kevin met while playing in The Complete Last Waltz, a live recreation of The Band’s last performance. As well as many musical contributions from Cohen himself, Kevin is also joined by an array of other musicians, including Hannah Cohen, Elvis Perkins’ drummer Nick Kinsey and Quilt’s John Andrews, who plays the titular saw.
Whilst the music Kevin Morby makes is firmly rooted in the sound of Americana, it is also laced with enough fresh ideas to lift it beyond a mere re-hash of old ideas. Certainly it’s a world of gentle acoustic guitars, echoing pianos and Kevin’s warm vocal, pitched somewhere between My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and ex-Walkman, Hamilton Leithauser. However, away from the regular Americana calling cards, there’s also room for gospel-tinged, girl group backing vocals, Beirut like Balkan-tinged horns, synthetic organs and fuzzed-up electric guitars.
A surprisingly complicated question for our Kevin; Kevin was born in Lubbock, Texas and previously described Kansas City as home, whilst his most recent album, Singing Saw was recorded in Woodstock. However the location that most shaped the sound of Singing Saw is his current home in the neighbourhood of Mount Washington in Los Angeles, an area Kevin himself has described as, “a poor man’s Laurel Canyon.” Mount Washington is located in the San Rafael Hills in North East L.A, and is considered an up and coming area in L.A’s less affluent East Side. Mount Washington seems to largely famous for being very hilly, boasting one of the steepest streets in the world, and for being by L.A standards very green.
Kevin first picked up a guitar at the age of ten, in the late 1990’s, it was however only after dropping out of high school and relocating to New York that he came to the world’s attention. Kevin met former Vivian Girls guitarist Cassie Ramone and formed The Babies, before in 2011 becoming the bass player for noise-folk band, Woods. In 2013, Kevin would leave Woods, and with The Babies on hiatus, he began a solo career. He released his debut album, Harlem River, back in 2013 via Woods’ label Woodsist, and followed that up with another album for the label, 2014’s Still Life. His most recent album, Singing Saw, came out last month, and was his first release for Dead Oceans.
Chance plays a huge part in the writing, and success, of any musical project. For Kevin Morby, the hand fate dealt him was an upright piano, a series of mysterious pieces of sheet music and a book of basic piano chords, left behind by the previous tenants of his Mount Washington apartment. Sitting at that piano, teaching himself to play piano, Kevin began to compose the music that would make up his third solo album, Singing Saw.
This was not the only influence Mount Washington had on this album; it also saw Kevin change the way he worked, he would spend the days, whilst his girlfriend went to work, writing at home. Then as the sun set he would retire for the day, and walk among the hills and side-streets of his neighbourhood, looking upon the city lights below and the canyons and nature around him. Throughout Singing Saw he repeats certain imagery, willow trees, singing saws, the powerful nature of his guitar. With these repeated images he creates a lyrical world that gives the listeners ties to each track, it creates an album that is more than the sum of it’s part, it’s an almost old fashioned, or traditional, LP.
That someone so rooted in the American-folk tradition should go down the route of making a real, traditional LP, as opposed to a collection of disparate songs, is perhaps no surprise. That he manages to do so with such exquisitely produced slices of perfect Americana, is frankly remarkable. From the opening track, Cut Me Down, Kevin invites us into a world of gorgeous hushed acoustics, and gently crooned vocals, the track hints at an admiration for The War On Drugs and a kinship with Hiss Golden Messenger; but whilst The War On Drugs are a band who deal in bold textural sounds, in Morby’s interpretation it’s the intricate details that shine through. Here it’s in the light-fingered bassy runs and the crystalline quality of the higher guitar trills, tiny flourishes that over time reveal their exquisite charms.
Throughout much of Singing Saw, it’s possible to almost appreciate each track on two levels. There’s the surface level atmospherics; the way I Have Been To The Mountain bounces with a more urgent, Damien Jurado-like tone, the atmospherics ringing piano-chords of Ferris Wheel, gentle percussive nature of Drunk And On A Star. As you learn to love the atmospherics though you gradually begin to pick out other, more subtle thrills; the persistent ringing piano that pulses through the heart of the title track, the way the double tracked vocals on Dorothy buzz around your head, there subtly, perfectly contrasted by the loud fuzz of a guitar line, the way Water starts with a swell of organ that sounds not-unlike a gospel choir, and then latterly is replaced by an actual gospel-choir. Intricate, beautiful and atmospheric, it’s a record that feels like exploring a new city, you keep coming back for listen after listen, and still with every play find yet more reasons to keep putting the needle back to the start. Singing Saw is the sound of a songwriter coming to terms with their place in the world, and making a very good job of sharing that experience with the listener.
It’s hard to find anything critical about such a lushly produced and beautifully crafted record, so it really just come down to whether or not this is just too restrained for your personal tastes. That said even if this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it’s hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t find something to admire here.
Singing Saw is out now via Dead Oceans. Kevin Morby tours Europe in May, click HERE for details.