When you name your album after a quirky lumberjack instrument, it had better appear, and fast. Kevin Morby’s vibrant new album (his third), Singing Saw, begins with the trilling appearance of a singing saw. Nobody wants to be a singing-saw tease; show the saw, use the saw. Within five seconds of “Cut Me Down,” a melancholy “bring on the pain,” song, the singing saw is vibrating underneath Morby’s plaintive vocals. It’s such a distinctive sound—like the Theremin, the singing saw immediately conjures images of UFOs hovering on the horizon or perhaps will-o’-the-wisps languidly pirouetting over some remote midnight swamp. But in Morby’s album, the singing saw is not so much a conceit as it is a handy talisman against the disappointments and losses Morby catalogues in the vast majority of the songs.
The first four songs of Singing Saw, in particular, deliver the goods. “I Have Been to the Mountain,” for instance, uses prog rock licks—eerie stabs of a fuzzy guitar, strings, and an otherworldly wailing by the lurking background singers. Despite the title, which might, to a certain demographic, immediately conjure an image of Beavis and Butthead, the lyrics are effectively cryptic—loss of faith, or simply a missing man (a father perhaps)? A wise man? A prophet? God? The speaker has been to the mountain but comes away empty handed. Folk evaporate quickly in Singing Saw.
The masterful “Singing Saw” picks up on motifs already imbedded in “Cut Me Down” and “I Have Been to the Mountain.” In this case the lyrics reside on the surreal of town—“Thought I saw/a singing saw/cutting down a weeping tree/thought I saw/a singing saw/singing after me.” The amulet has a life of its own. The longest song on the album, is also the most propulsive and memorable. Morby utilizes some beautiful, lonesome high-plains guitar, harp, piano and the background singers hit such a high, baleful pitch they almost sound like children. It’s a creepy, complex work. This song in particular makes me think of Damien Jurado’s recent work—high praise.
After the title song, the album takes on a much more direct path, up the mountain as it were. “Drunk on a Star” and “Ferris Wheel,” for instance are unapologetically wistful. Others have compared Morby to Leonard Cohen, Dylan and Nick Drake, but in these two songs, Morby is not too far away from simply taking up the mantle as the indie John Denver. The nature songs occupying the back half of the album are explicitly winsome in intent and optimistic.
After “Ferris Wheel” Morby shifts back to the shadows, however, at least in part. “Destroyer,” another searching number, is one of my favorite tunes on the album. In this song “she” is missing, not the man on the mountain. The song uses a simple blues structure, building upon piano and drums. As the song ripens, Morby adds strings and a sax underneath and the song begins its walkabout, Morby wandering and searching. The saw reappears, this time as a talisman again.
Finally, in “Black Flowers” and “Water,” Morby ends the album with slow-building songs about disintegration and survival, respectively. The black flowers have invaded the old garden to tinkling ivory and thumping drums. The song is a beauty, especially once the background vocals and Japanese allusions materialize. “Water,” on the other hand has echoes of a lost country gem, with its sung-spoken journey lyrics, steel-guitar and dry-throated entreaty for good-ole H2O.
The only track on “Singing Saw” that falls somewhat flat for me is “Dorothy.” It’s a straight-forward rocker, but mostly it is lacking the layered quality Morby has on display in other songs. It’s certainly not a throw-away, but it sounds to these ears like a cut from a different album.
Perhaps the best move Morby made in creating Singing Saw is his inclusion of background vocals, which lend a three-dimensional quality to the album. The background singers arrive in each song just at the moment when some of the tunes threaten to become a bit static. The result is an expressive quality not entirely present in his first album.
Kevin Morby, who originates from Kansas but has since moved to New York and now to Los Angeles is difficult to pin down. In Singing Saw, Morby attempts to capture L.A.—the focus being the desert canyons, not the smog and traffic. He operates like a photographer searching for hidden pockets of beauty amongst the concrete sprawl. The 70’s singer-songwriter quality surges through on most of his songs, as does a certain aspiration to Walt Whitman, or even in places, Woody Guthrie in the investigation of country and self. However, perhaps as a result of his break from his previous bands The Babies and Woods, Morby seems closer in spirit to Kurt Vile (who similarly unglued himself from War on Drugs). Morby is less self-consciously oddball than Vile and his voice is nowhere near as tangy and mannered, but at least in Singing Saw Morby’s songs generally offer an evenness and consistency that Vile’s sometimes lack.
But why must we compare one newish musician to other more-established musicians. Why the need to compare and contrast at all? In the end Singing Saw is its own entity, as is Kevin Morby.