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Music review: Singer-songwriter Kevin Morby's love letter to New York

In City Music, Kevin Morby gives everyone a voice.
In City Music, Kevin Morby gives everyone a voice. PHOTO: DEAD OCEANS

Kevin Morby's fourth album celebrates The Big Apple's community of artists, musicians and ordinary folk

Lou Reed paints a portrait of denizens who Walk On The Wild Side. Leonard Cohen waxes lyrical about Chelsea Hotel, the Manhattan landmark that is home to generations of creative sorts. More recently, Alicia Keys rhapsodises about the Empire State Of Mind in her duet with Jay Z.

This is no other city except New York, of course. Add Kansas Cityborn Kevin Morby to the latest list of artists who are besotted with The Big Apple.

His 2013 solo debut Harlem River stands in as a metaphor for the heartbeat of New York and, this time, his fourth and latest outing, City Music, is elevated to "a fever dream" and "a love letter to those cities that I cannot get rid of".

It is a peripatetic musician's attempt to find solace in a life of constant displacement. Where his millennial contemporaries such as Julia Holter and Nicolas Jaar try to re-create the musique concrete buzz of urban living (alarms going off, people walking and whispering) in their albums Loud City (2013) and Sirens (2016), Morby celebrates the community - artists, musicians, ordinary folk - who reside in these cities.

The centrepiece is the almost seven-minute-long title track, initially meant to be a banjo instrumental, slowly riffing on a languid note, but became an infectious post-punk anthem in the spirit of the legendary band Television.

"Oh, how you're pulling my heart strings and/Oh, let's go downtown," goes one punchy zinger, exhorting all and sundry to glean sunshine amid the grime.



    Kevin Morby

    Dead Oceans

    4/5 stars

In the jaunty punk tribute 1234, he invokes the vim of The Ramones, chanting names of the four members "Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy", and cribbing the refrain off the chorus of People Who Died, by poet Jim Carroll.

Such joie de vivre is palpable too in his embrace of the Everymen. Aboard My Train is a make-believe ride with friends "boarding my train and departing at different stations" - a bittersweet ode to relationships past and present.

"Some of them look the same/But none of them smell the same/And some of them will never change/While some of them are growing strange," go the rhyming couplets that strike an all-toofamiliar chord, counterpointed by free-spirited guitars and drums.

Morby, just 29, nonetheless intuits the mortal coil. Check out his sensitive rendering of Caught In My Eye, a song by the iconic Los Angeles punk band The Germs, fronted by the late great Darby Crash. It was also a favourite of his old roommate Johnny, who once wished someone would cover it.

In his unshowy, mumbling way, Morby gets the ambivalence just right.

"You're the fall guy/In the corner of my gloom/It feels like/Everything that I see/Is nothing new/I got you caught in my eye, again," he sings, as a serpentine riff at the end underscores the inexorable sands of fate.

Who is this fall guy? The Grim Reaper? Depression? Someone who understands?

In Morby's City Music, everyone deserves a voice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'Love letter to New York'. Print Edition | Subscribe