Still Life by Kevin Morby

The sweet-voiced Kevin Morby, known for his more modest roles as bassist in Woods and one part of Cassie Ramone's band the Babies, is set to release his second solo record, 'Still Life'. It follows up the eclectic folk record 'Harlem River', which ranged from plaintive acoustic ballads to smoky barroom guitar riffing. From hearing "Parade", one would expect 'Still Life' to be a folk rock record with booming, confident arrangements, bringing in trumpets that sound quite Okkervil River and subtle bass playing that recalls 'Blood on the Tracks' era Bob Dylan. 

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Still Life by Kevin Morby
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8/10 Robin 15 October 2014

The CD for Kevin Morby's 'Still Life' is laid across a decadent white and red pattern that recalls the presentation of Dylan's early wax for Columbia Records, immediately conjuring up images of a time when folk singers wrote the best lyrics, smoked the most infinite number of cigarettes and made people in coats cry in ancient coffee shops. Morby's definitely had those days on his mind, from time to time: the Woods bassist released his solo debut, 'Harlem River', last year, as if it were an offering to that era, made so that he could join it. With his experience in bands that make contemporary updates of old genres -- through psychedelic additives or garage rock recklessness -- Morby sounds like an old master walking around new territory, knowing his way is the best way. With his newest record, the assured period piece 'Still Life', he makes a striking guitar chord sound like a time machine back to the '60s.

'Still Life' sees Morby descend further into his traditional folk aspirations, but the narratives he weaves are somehow less contained, more experimental. He takes after Dylan's weirder, more formally narrative songwriting with opener "The Jester, The Tramp & The Acrobat", a play acted between three of Morby's characters that recalls Dylan's "Ballad Of Franke Lee and Judas Priest". Without a lyrics' sheet, it's a pretty baffling little story, Morby refusing to pull a Stephen Fry and switch up his voice per character. That's where things start to deviate from the straightforward melancholy of 'Harlem River' -- where that was an entirely soft, plaintive affair, 'Still Life' sees him take on the freewheeling abandon his favourite folk singers eventually turned to -- "The Ballad of Arlo Jones" , for one, is an amped up rocker so raucous that Morby actually raises his voice and starts screaming towards the end of his ten-point manifesto. That final resolved scream of "ten, ten, ten!" feels like a nod to the way folk burst from its seams and eventually gave birth to the Violent Femmes and "Kiss Off" -- like that band of ramshackle acoustic punks, Morby came here to fuck shit up.

Well, a little bit. This is still Modest Morby we're talking about. The compelling forward momentum that kicks off 'Still Life' is eventually halted on the gorgeous, heart-stopping "All My Life", a tune that feels more in step with his clean soft rock origins. On 'Harlem River', Morby sounded like a member of Woods who had absorbed all their ease and effortlessness but none of their psych inclinations, and "All My Life" continues in that vein, a breezy but sad tune moulded out of brushed percussion and warming bass notes a la those early, countrified Grateful Dead records. The lyrics, too, are simple, the most poignant of the record because they're laid the most bare: he sings "All of my life / waiting for you / just to be by your side / just to see it through" with a heavy sigh, knowing that going into further details would diminish the power of his words. Much the same direct beauty is present on "Parade", its twinkling piano and sparse guitar chords reflecting Morby's quiet graces; "Parade" is so calm and expected, it's as if our rock star was a goldfish and his backing band was the fish tank. The song's lyrics are both obvious and ambiguous, never given more substance than Morby requires to tug at a few heartstrings: "All of my friends were there waiting on me / and Laurie was there, waiting on me / and Anna was there, waiting on me". These are the kind of lyrical moments that make Morby's songs so irresistible: they feel meaningful, but they're intangible and uncanny.

Morby is definitely having a lot of fun with 'Still Life': even on the sparse and gorgeous "Parade", he's not afraid to self-sabotage, bringing in bashful sax and backing singers to deliver euphoric "ba ba ba!" vocals. He's happy to twist his nostalgic, yearning sound inside out for smokier atmospheres -- as on the eerie and distanced "Dancer" -- and languishing epics like "Amen", which toils around an ever-changing tempo and two constantly exchanged riffs. As a result, it's not as wall-to-wall perfect as 'Harlem River', sequenced with as much care but in order to shock rather than stun. 'Still Life' feels, in a way like a 'Blonde On Blonde' after a 'Highway 61': after all's been said, all there is to do is say it again. It never makes as much sense the second time round.


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