Kevin Morby is somewhat of a man not made for these times. A folk-rock singer-songwriter who spends a lot of time lyrically contemplating mortality and the ephemeral nature of our being doesn’t equate greatly with commercial success. Neither do his lyrical references to anachronisms; the pastoral scenes he paints and the old-school methods he employs are more in line with the folkies of the ‘60s. His weary perspective and nasally intoned voice hearken back to the old masters: Woody, Seeger, Dylan, and Cohen, though rather than shouting protests and arguing stridently for change, Morby dives right in to the surrealism that it took his forebears years to catch onto.
Singing Saw, Morby’s third full length, finds him confidently ambling along similar terrain covered previously. He’s still searching the landscape (in this case, his new Los Angeles-area surroundings), observing the disparate scenes around him, and looking for clues as to what it all means. There are songs about domestic turmoil (“Black Flowers”), lost innocence (“Ferris Wheel”), and the deep need to experience and understand cultural differences (“Dorothy” and “I Have Been To The Mountain”). There is also the ever-present “singing saw” of the title track. Like Kane’s “Rosebud” it appears as a reoccurring symbol throughout the album’s nine tracks, begging for inspection and demanding attention. Chosen by Morby because its’ dual functionality-its’ ability to literally create sonically pleasing sounds is contrasted with its’ more well-known function of separating and dividing objects-the saw also serves to ably describe Morby’s craftsmanship approach to music. Beyond that, it’s a unifying theme that ties the material together while lending a certain kind of concept to the whole album.
Musically, the songs sound invigorating. Perhaps as a result of a bigger studio budget, there is a larger sonic palette here in comparison to past releases. While Morby’s guitar and occasional piano anchor things with a sense of minimal efficiency, there are a plethora of other instruments-horn, keys, percussion, and hints of gospel in the backing vocals-that elevate a lot of the songs from simple to grandiose. No doubt, Morby’s stint playing in The Complete Last Waltz, the live recreation of The Band’s farewell concert, played a large role in the expansion of sound. And, of course, there is even some saw being played on a couple of tracks. How’s that for authenticity?
Authentic is a word that can describe Morby’s career, so far. He goes where the muse carries him; from his time fronting The Babies to his bass playing role in Woods to his side project with Cassie Ramone from Vivian Girls, Morby seeks an outlet for his considerable talents. With songwriting being chief among those, he’s cut out much of the collaboration and carved out a solo gig that has been amazingly prolific and richly rewarding. Though his imagery is often shrouded in the terms of the past, his mind is attuned to the contemporary dilemmas we all face. That makes him an important and essential voice of these times, as well. Not yet 30 years old, it appears likely the world will continue to hear more from him as time continues to march forward.