Richard Buckner
Sept. 14, Schubas, Chicago, Ill.

By: Brandon Forbes

There seems to be a stigma in indie music with the term “singer-songwriter." For most hipsters the use of this label results in images of middle-aged, acoustic coffeehouse balladeers who craft melodramatic tales of lost love, cover James Taylor and the Counting Crows, and pay close attention to the G and C chords. Despite this distasteful picture, many individual songwriters are incredibly popular in indie circles. One only has to think of Conor Oberst, Ben Chasny, or Chan Marshall to see that the singer-songwriter has indie cred. Of course, these artists usually play under the names Bright Eyes, Six Organs of Admittance, and Cat Power, respectively. It seems using your own name betrays too much of a link to the dreaded flannelled, gray-haired Cup O’Joe artist of the week.

In the face of this generalization lies the artistic indie success of Richard Buckner. Eight albums into his career as a singer-songwriter, Buckner has produced what is perhaps his finest album. Often the recipient of the knee-jerk classification of “folk artist,” Buckner’s latest offering from Merge Records, Meadow, only has one or two moments that could fit within such a genre. Buckner has always played the role of poet-wanderer amid the changes and fast-paced momentum of modern society, and he continues this role in Meadow, fleshing out his poetic musings with a new exploration into modern rock tones. Now a resident of Brooklyn, Buckner culled a collective of musicians that can almost be described as “anti-folk” to participate as his backing band. Including Doug Gillard and Kevin March, both of whom have played with Guided By Voices, and Steven Goulding, who has worked with Mekons and Waco Brothers among others, the band gives a vibrant, modern rock feel to Buckner’s tunes, swallowing up Buckner’s traditional acoustic sound. This change in sound, already apparent in nascent form on 2005’s jangly Dents & Shells, boosts Buckner’s songwriting to a more immediate level – pacing bass, pounding drums, and strong piano parts accentuate the mood of the majority of the record. Nowhere is this change more clear than on opener “Town”, which rocks like nothing else in Buckner’s oeuvre, or on “Window”, which bares aggressive drumming and warm, percussive keys.

Richard Buckner/Doug Gillard- A Chance Counsel (live)

Buckner’s signature honey-sweet baritone strains and soothes across the expert musicianship of Meadow’s ten tracks, emphasizing the riddle of his poetry in its own unique way. As usual, Buckner’s voice creates a moody, introspective atmosphere, lulling the listener into alternating states of road-weary contemplation and hopeful expectation. The soothing changes in Buckner’s range are hypnotic on “Mile” and the folky “The Tether and the Tie”. Lyrically, Buckner’s stream-of-consciousness style combines enigmatic poetry with straight forward longing, often letting the sentiment dissolve into the somber music that enfolds it, only to bring it back again in measured resiliency throughout the record. This delivery denies resolution in the songs themselves, forcing the listener into the space between beginning and ending consistently throughout the record. Such a sound, complimented by Buckner’s hermeneutically ripe vocal poetics, makes Meadow a rewarding listen.

With high expectations from spinning Meadow consistently over the last month, I went to a recent double show Buckner gave shared with Crooked Finger Eric Bachman at Chicago’s Schuba’s Tavern. Buckner was opening so we got there early and set up shop near the front of a stage filled with guitars. Buckner and accompaniest Doug Gillard, who appears so prominently on Meadow, soon appeared on stage and sat down on rickety wooden chairs and began an hour long set that seemed, at times, more like a trance than a waking experience. Buckner, eyes closed, leaned into the mic, various guitars in hand, and let his huskily melodic voice guide the audience through a massive set list covering most of his creative output that only barely represented Meadow. Gillard’s lead guitar accented Buckner’s rhythm perfectly, both instruments bleeding into a unified wall of sound. In between songs, rather than speak to the audience while tuning, Buckner would utilize his pedals to loop some riff or strum pattern and then Gillard would record a complimentary part to the effect that, literally, there was no moment of silence between the start and finish of the set. While the level of two electric guitars being strummed simultaneously, with no additional instrumentation, sometimes created an uncomfortable dissonance, Buckner’s voice would always work its way into the mix, steadying the course of the performance. Gillard left the stage for Buckner’s final song, a barely strummed acoustic tune that was more a platform for his wickedly sweet delivery than anything else and which offered a fitting bookend to Buckner’s set.

In Laurie Moore’s novel Anagrams, Benna, a community college poetry professor, refers to the “life boat simile” in poetry: “A line is like a lifeboat – only a limited number of words get to go in it and you have to decide which word-lives are most valuable; the rest die.” Richard Buckner, it would seem, lives by this motto, saving only powerfully suggestive phrases for his songs and, with his captivating voice, delivers them safe and sound on both his latest record and in his live performances. There’s certainly no shame in being a singer-songwriter if this is the product.

All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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