Songs dunked in Bourbon and imagery

A singing saw is a hand saw which produces an ethereal sound when a bow is drawn across its serrated edge. It is an unlikely instrument of beauty, but Texas-born singer- songwriter Kevin Morby - formerly of Brooklyn folk rockers Woods and indie rockers The Babies - uses it as a metaphor for life's boundless risk and riches.

It is also inspired by his move from New York to Los Angeles, where, instead of Hollywood's glitz, he sees animals and moons and the elemental forces at work. This translates into a compelling song cycle of myth, gospel and semi-autobiography, dunked in Bourbon and imagery.

The sound, meticulous yet relaxed, harkens back to early Bob Dylan and the classic 1970s troubadours, down to Morby's soft-spoken purr and occasional nasal wheeze as it stretches vowels to their frayed ends.

On the stellar title track, replete with rolling riffs and thumping bass and an organ that rings in the air, the singer unfurls a narrative about an old laughing coyote and "a singing saw/Cutting down a song tree" as a female choir echoes his words.

He is an exemplary storyteller, evocative of mood and ambivalent of meaning. On Ferris Wheel, the ride becomes symptomatic of his own mental state. "Well I lose my mind sometimes," he speaks plainly, before alluding to an unresolved spat: "I take back everything I said/ As the tears fall from your face."

The circular motif extends to the sprinkling of piano keys as he dives deeper into memory. This is evident too in Destroyer, an exquisitely orchestrated ballad.


  • SINGING SAW Kevin Morby

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He proffers a series of questions - "Have you seen my lover/With her long blonde hair?" and "And have you seen my mother/She's out looking for my father?" - over gentle syncopation and keening strings.

He ventures into social commentary on the incendiary I Have Been To The Mountain, an electric missive addressing the killing of Eric Garner, the black man choked to death by a police officer.

The title takes its line from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr's sanguine "I've been to the mountaintop" speech delivered a day before he was assassinated in 1968.

Domesticity has its own hidden agenda. In Black Flowers, he hints at a volatile subtext beneath the bucolic arrangements. "In the garden where we built a home/black flowers," he describes, over rustling tambourine, pitter-pattering drums and softly buttressed piano keys.

A decade earlier, the musician would have been slotted into the West Coast freak-folk commune populated by the likes of Devendra Banhart. The scene might have dissipated, but Morby, at 28, illustrates the munificent possibilities of such an inclusive, organic sound.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Songs dunked in Bourbon and imagery'. Subscribe