Kevin Morby, Waxahatchee
43 Montgomery St.
Jersey City, NJ, 07302
Doors 7:30 PM / Show 8:30 PM
Singing Saw is a record written simply and realized orchestrally. In it, Kevin Morby faces the reality that true beauty - deep and earned - demands a whole-world balance that includes our darker sides. It is a record of duality, one that marks another stage of growth for this young, gifted songwriter with a kind face and a complicated mind.
In the Autumn of 2014, Kevin Morby moved to the small Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington. The move would shape Singing Saw, Morby's first album for new label Dead Oceans. Previous tenants at Morby's new home happened to leave an upright piano behind, with a few mysterious pieces of sheet music and an introductory book of common chords stacked on top. Thankful to finally be in one place for an extended spell, Morby, a beginner at the piano, immediately sat at the new instrument and began composing the songs that would form Singing Saw.
Alongside, he began taking long walks through the winding hills and side streets of the neighborhood each night, glimpsing views of both the skyline's sweeping lights and the dark, dried out underbrush of the LA flora. The duality of the city itself began to shape a set of lyrical ideas that he would refine with the sparse accompaniment of piano and acoustic guitar.
What is a singing saw It is an instrument that creates ethereal sounds, but it is also a tool: basic and practical while also being fearsome, even destructive. Morby watches the singing saw in its eponymous song; that instrument of eerie soft beauty cuts down the flowers in its path and chases after him, while his surroundings mock and dwarf him, Alice in Wonderland style. And in a singing saw, we can understand music as something more powerful than its inviting, delicate sound. No wonder Morby talks about a "songbook" in his head as something he needs to take up the hills so he can "get rid of it." Heavy themes are nothing new for Morby, whose previous records (2013's Harlem River and 2014's Still Life, both released on the Woodsist label) dealt with their own eerie visions and damning prophecies.
Morby opens Singing Saw with "Cut Me Down", a song of tears, debts and a prescient vision of being reduced to nothing. "I Have Been to the Mountain", "Destroyer" and "Black Flowers" continue to explore beauty and freedom, seizing upon the rot that seeps into even the supposedly safest of realms; peace, family and romantic love. By the end of the record on "Water", Morby is literally begging to be put out once and for all, like a fire that might burn all the visions away.
Travels beyond his mountain walks inform songs like "Dorothy", which recounts a trip to Portugal, witnessing a fishing ritual and luxuriating in the aura of a bar light-tinged reunion with old friends The touching innocence of "Ferris Wheel" stands alone in stark simplicity amidst the lush sonic textures of the album. Here, the album is balanced by Morby's signature sweetness and joie de vivre.
The arrangements of Singing Saw trace back to Morby's experience playing in The Complete Last Waltz, a live recreation of The Band's legendary last performance. There, Morby developed a fast friendship with producer/bandleader Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellow Birds), which led Morby to forgo recording in Los Angeles and take the nascent songs of Singing Saw to Isokon Studios in Woodstock, New York. There, in a converted A-frame house, they set about creating a record that would bring a sonic balance, intricacy and depth to match these songs and all that inspired them.
Sam Cohen added a multitude of instrumentation to the record (guitar, bass, drums and keyboard), and were joined by fellow Complete Last Waltz alum Marco Benevento on piano and keyboard, fleshing out Morby's original compositions and upholding the vision for a cohesive piano sound that serves as a touchstone for the entire album. Backup vocalists Hannah Cohen, Lauren Balthrop and Alecia Chakor contribute soaring harmonies; Nick Kinsey (Elvis Perkins) adds drums and percussion; Justin Sullivan, a longtime Morby collaborator and staple of his live band, contributes drums; Oliver Hill and Eliza Bag lift numerous songs with string accompaniments, and Alec Spiegelman on saxophone and flute and Cole Kamen-Green on trumpet bring dramatic swells. Finally, John Andrews (Quilt) adds the eerie lilt of the album's promise, providing saw on the "Cut Me Down" and "Singing Saw".
In the end, Morby fulfills the promise many heard on his first two albums, bringing his most realized effort of songwriting and lyricism to fruition. The songs of Singing Saw reflect the clarity that comes from welcoming change and embracing duality, and the distillation of those elements into an entirely new vision.
Katie Crutchfield's southern roots are undeniable. The name of her solo musical project Waxahatchee comes from a creek not far from her childhood home in Alabama and seems to represent both where she came from and where she's going. Since leaving home, Crutchfield has drifted between New York and Philadelphia but chose to return to Alabama to write her first two albums: American Weekend, her debut filled with powerful lo-fi acoustic tracks full of lament, and Cerulean Salt, a more developed and solid narrative about growing up. Both are representations of a youthful struggle with unresolved issues and unrequited feelings.
Waxhatchee's latest record, Ivy Tripp, drifts confidently from these previous albums and brings forth a more informed and powerful recognition of where Crutchfield has currently found herself. The lament and grieving for her youth seem to have been replaced with control and sheer self-honesty. "My life has changed a lot in the last two years, and it's been hard for me to process my feelings other than by writing songs," says Crutchfield. "I think a running theme [of Ivy Tripp] is steadying yourself on shaky ground and reminding yourself that you have control in situations that seem overwhelming, or just being cognizant in moments of deep confusion or sadness, and learning to really feel emotions and to grow from that."
Recorded and engineered by Kyle Gilbride of Wherever Audio at Crutchfield's home on New York's Long Island—with drums recorded in the gym of a local elementary school—Ivy Tripp presents a more developed and aged version of Waxahatchee. "The title Ivy Tripp is really just a term I made up for directionless-ness, specifically of the 20-something, 30-something, 40-something of today, lacking regard for the complaisant life path of our parents and grandparents. I have thought of it like this: Cerulean Salt is a solid and Ivy Tripp is a gas."
Crutchfield is accompanied by both Gilbride and Keith Spencer on Ivy Tripp, and the record was produced by all three of them. With the addition of more guitar work, piano, drum machines, and Crutchfield's vocals in full bloom, we are given a record that feels more emphatic and pronounced. Ivy Tripp opens with "Breathless," filled with only a distorted keyboard and layers of vocals, showcasing Waxahatchee's pension for quiet, personal reflection. The record then opens up into "Under a Rock," a quicker guitar-driven song that lays the foundation for the rest of the album, which as a whole resonates with strong, self-aware lyrics, energetic ballads, and powerfully hushed moments of solitude. Crutchfield's voice is certainly the guiding force behind Ivy Tripp—commanding and voluminous in the rock song "Poison," candied and pure in the frolicking "La Loose"—gripping you tightly and then softly releasing you into the wilds of emotion.
As far as her goals with Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield says, "I heard someone say that you have to be the change you want to see. I just want to be the kind of musician I want to see in the world. I want to present myself in a way that reflects that."
Sometimes it can take years to find your calling. Not so for Julie Byrne, whose power of lyrical expression and musical nous seems inborn. Her second album, Not Even Happiness, has evolved at its own pace. It spans recollections of bustling roadside diners, the stars over the high desert, the aching weariness of change, the wildflowers of the California coast, and the irresolvable mysteries of love. Teaching herself guitar, having picked it up when her father became ill and could no longer play, Byrne also admits she can't read music and doesn't even listen to it all that much—her own vinyl was the first in her possession. "Without possessing the right words, I'd describe to [producer] Eric Littman (Phantom Posse) and Jake Falby (who contributed strings) the feeling I wanted a song to evoke, or I would take a shot at singing what was in my head. Though over all, their contributions to the record are entirely their own vision and their own power." The follow-up to 2014's critically lauded Rooms With Walls And Windows, this latest offers a bigger picture through a wider exploration of instruments and atmospherics, revealing an artist who has grown in confidence over time. Whether witnessing the Pacific Northwest for the first time ("Melting Grid"), the morning sky in the mountains of Boulder ("Natural Blue"), or a journey fragrant with rose water or reading Frank O'Hara aloud from the passenger seat during a drive through the Utah desert into the rainforest of Washington State ("The Sea As It Glides"), Not Even Happiness is Byrne's beguiling ode to the fringes of life.