BY JOHN SCHACHT
An open letter to Merge Records:
As long-time admirers of Richard Buckner’s music, we’d like to thank you first for providing a quality record label home and nation-wide distro for the singer-songwriter these past years. Wait to stand by your man and get the word out, too.
But after spending quite a bit of time with his latest outing, Surrounded, we humbly submit a suggestion for your label. How ‘bout you spend some of that Arcade Fire Grammy lucre and surround (pun intended) Buckner with some worthy peers for a two-week stint in a comfy studio with a lot of cool toys? Doesn’t that sound cool?
Don’t get us wrong — there are wonderful moments on the nine-song Surrounded, Buckner’s ninth solo full-length and fifth for you guys. All the elements that make his songs special are present and accounted for, too: the heart-rending hush and finger-picked fragility of the title track and “Portrait”; the subtle keyboard layers enveloping “Beautiful Question” like a narcotic buzz; the looping whirlpools and percussive strums of “When You Tell Me How It Is”; the e-bow fires that eventually consume the “Lean-To.”
And of course all of that delivers us the husky, conspiratorial whisper that leans in and invites us to add our own shitstorms and epiphanies to the emotional heft of the stories. These are those tales told in the stop-motion images of memory that keep detonating down the years. These are among the things that keep us coming back each time the man re-emerges with another catharsis in hand.
Sure, we understand that after the horrific birth pangs of his last release, Our Blood, Buckner would want to get something simple down and hand it over toute de suite to producer Tucker Martine to sand out the rough spots. Going through multiple versions of an album, as happened with Our Blood, would make anybody gun shy.
But we can’t help notice that Surrounded’s songs feel like our man’s running in place; a bit pro forma, if you like. The songs also feel as claustrophobic as 2002’s Impasse, when Buckner was holed up in a basement during the Vancouver winter and the implosion of his second marriage. Think back instead to those MCA releases like 1997’s Devotion & Doubt, where Calexicans Joey Burns and John Convertino provided the nuanced rhythm and Marc Ribot showed up to lay down guitar. Or how about the follow-up, 1998’s densely and beautifully textured Since? For that one, MCA monies paid for Tortoise drummer John McEntire, guitarists David Grubbs and Dave Schramm, singer Syd Straw, and pedal steel whiz Eric Heywood, among others. And that record still sounds incredible.
What’s that? Okay, sure, you don’t have MCA money, we get that; turns out they don’t either now! But go back to even your own release, 2006’s Meadow, when JD Foster, Doug Gillard and others joined Buckner to make his best Merge recording —the man’s songs really bloom when like-minded souls play along.
Point is, Surrounded is a fine LP, and Buckner’s 2.5 stars still trump most singer-songwriter’s 4 or 5. (Ed. note: for the record, the writer gave the album 2 ½ stars but our site’s webform will only accept single starred ratings.) But good as this is, it could be that much better. Hopefully you guys will think the same.
All the best in any case,
Buckner fan 1,439
DOWNLOAD: “Surrounded” “Mood” “Lean-to”