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Richard Buckner: Dents and Shells

 
Austin native Richard Buckner is the owner of a ridiculously burnished voice, the kind of weathered rasp that invites overbaked comparisons to old leather, mellow whiskey and open prairie afternoons. At a whisper, darker tones invite hushed intimacy; when he cuts loose, the weariness in his voice turns to an ache that Springsteen would kill to have the use of for a single day. In the past, he has sometimes had trouble finding songs good enough to go with his voice. Buckner's instincts are not rock instincts, nor are they quite country; he doesn't go in for drama or the big finish. Indeed, even dressed up with steel guitars and up-tempo kit drumming, Buckner pretty much writes folk songs in the metaphorical-confessional mode, and I just can't find it in myself to hold it against him. He's too cool, too rumpled. Too real.

One problem with modern folk music is that it requires a measured subtlety that too often presents as sleepiness, and Buckner isn't completely innocent in this regard. On 2002's Impasse, all the album's songs melted together into a lukewarm puddle of mildly depressing soul-searching. That album was a big letdown in comparison to his debut, Bloomed (that album's "Rainsquall" is one of my favorite happy-sad songs), and his mid-90s offerings Since and Devotion+Doubt, which are great records.

On the new Dents and Shells, Buckner seems to have unclenched quite a bit. Leaving the bulk of the playing to a crack team of hired sidemen, Buckner offers a solid set of ten songs that make the most of his way with a yearning melody and a laid-back vibe. Operating in the same general territory as Townes van Zandt, The Jayhawks (but softer and more messy) and early Steve Earle (without the snarl and the drugs), he seems to have figured out how to write songs that let the listener in. In particular, the shimmery guitar and piano of the opening "A Chance Counsel" and "Her" sit beautifully among the naked melancholy of "Firsts" and "And The Waves Will Always Roll," making Dents and Shells the first Richard Buckner album to do everything right with his considerable talents. Highly recommended, even (especially?) for non-fans of folk music.


Andy Heater
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