Kevin Morby - Still Life

by Warwick Stubbs Rating:8 Release Date:2014-10-13

I once listened to Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, hated everything about it and never listened to it again. As someone who has generally disliked slacker indie styles, almost anything that veers even close to Velvet Underground is immediately off my books.

But two days ago my interest was piqued. ‘Parade’ presented a fantastic grouping of slacker drums, guitar, and saxophone that seemed to feel driven more than slack. The bass guitar seemed a little muddy at times but its simplistic lines more than adequately supported the music; gentle and unobtrusive backing vocals added subtle touches while the vocalist spouted something about dying and having his body put on display… Well, whatever. Maybe it was an ode to stardom.

As a newcomer to Morby, I really can’t ignore the Bob Dylan sound, though thankfully, I’m willing to state that the songs are interesting rather than boring, and feature enough variety across the album to keep a listener engaged. ‘The Ballad of Arlo Jones’ kicks off with a stomping beat which got even this hard-rocker’s toes tapping, a fantastic bassline even my best mate would flip over, and some fantastic pre-verse catchy harmony vocals that add an extra touch to the standard folksy rhythm section.

For this and the next track, I can imagine Morby fans jumping up in their hovels and hipster dancing to their heart’s content, or at least until track four hits them with a slow groove, and then track five continues winding it down as though the title, ‘Drowning’, was meant for something to turn the lights off to and wallow in. Unfortunately, ‘Bloodsucker’ *ahem* doesn’t make life any better, although stripping back to just vocals and guitar for the length of the song adds perfectly placed variety at this point on the album. 

Lyrics like “I am trying to make peace inside today/ I am trying but it’s not working” seem honest and sincere, but much of it devolves into cliché: “So very near my dear but oh so very far/ A million miles while you’re one step to my left.” It’s like an attempt to claw out of the cliché, but one foot is always dragging the chain. “An honest man,” he tells us at the end. And quite honestly, I believe him. Nothing here seems fake or produced to appeal, but rather is an extension to the original expression.

“In my time I was a dancer,” Morby refrains during track eight, but the song sounds like little more than a reverie and a hymn to a lost spirit instead of a celebration. This causes the second half of the album to sound much weaker than the first, not without its own individualist appeal mind you.

‘Amen’ tries to bring things up but the 6/8 folk-rock still keeps the album dragging – thankfully, there’s a fantastic acoustic opening figure that returns at the 2:34 mark, builds and carries the song until the next 6/8 section. This song is probably the most interesting as it seems to build on its own musical virtues through simple time signature changes and brings back a subtle, but perhaps under-resourced saxophone towards the end.

The album rounds out with ‘Our Moon’, a gentle lullaby that lasts just under three minutes and feels like a perfect nightcap to the overall impressions of Still Life.

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