Album: Singing Saw

Artist: Kevin Morby

Label: Dead Oceans

Release Date: April 15, 2016



The Upshot: Singer-songwriter from the Woods/Babies elicits strange, spiritual resonances from the plainest of tools.


The singing saw is an unlikely instrument, a woodshop tool given tremulous, wavery voice with a bow and a bit of hard-won skill. Here on Kevin Morby’s third album under his own name (he’s done lots more with Woods and Babies), it is played by John Andrews. The saw is the first sound you hear on the record, an eerie, keening tone that reinforces the mystic vibe of “Cut Me Down,” while also reminding us that music can come from anywhere, permeates everything and regularly transcends its sources.

Saw aside, Morby works in a well-worn, Dylan-ish folk tradition, his glancing, image-heavy lyrics set off by guitar, bass and drums. He opens this out, in several tracks, with a fuller orchestra, enlisting Pavo Pavo’s Eliza Bagg and Oliver Hill on strings, and Cuddle Magic’s Cole Kamen-Green and Alec Spiegelman on trumpet and woodwinds, respectively. Marco Benevento guests on keyboards in a couple of spots, and there is a reasonably large singing ensemble.

The songs, then, range from spare, acoustic folk blues to full-fleshed extravaganzas, yet even the most dizzying tracks have an introspective cast. “I Have Been to the Mountain,” the disc’s best track, begins in scratchy strumming, but builds to large-scale, Spector-esque euphoria with massed choirs trilling gospel counterpoints. “Dorothy,” named for Morby’s guitar, is the album’s rocker with big fuzz crusted riffs and rackety drums, though there’s a lyrical jazz-tinged interval in it where Kamen-Green plays mournful trumpet against a scatter of jeweled piano notes.

Yet whether the tunes are dense or spare, Morby taps a mystical vein, linking vivid natural imagery with music. “I sang a song and I came back down the mountain, all the while a big moon above me, old coyote laughing at me,” he sings on the title cut, and you get the sense of an enveloping world of plants, animals, people and spirits, all vibrating with the same notes. “I thought I saw a singing saw cutting down a willow, thought I saw a singing saw, cutting down a song tree,”  Morby continues, and as he finishes a haunting saw note swoops in like a ghost.  Like the instrument it’s named for, Singing Saw elicits strange, spiritual resonances from the plainest of tools.

DOWNLOAD: “I Have Been to the Mountain” “Dorothy” “Singing Saw”

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