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Richard Buckner - Surrounded

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 31 / 10 / 2013

Richard Buckner - Surrounded
Label: Merge Records
Format: CD


Extraordinary tenth album, which was originally planned as a collection of short stories, from critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter, Richard Buckner

As I paid for my then latest selection of albums in an independent record shop in London in 1997, the knowledgeable guy behind the counter told me he had an album that I just had to listen to. A cynical person might think that the guy was just pushing for another sale, but such was his enthusiasm about an album by an artist I knew nothing about that I felt obliged to hang around a while and at least give it a listen. So it was there in this little shop that I heard Richard Buckner for the first time. ‘Devotion + Doubt’, the album I was invited to listen to that day, was Buckner’s third album, and I was more than a little surprised that his name wasn’t already familiar with me. With musicians such as Howe Gleb, John Convertino and Marc Ribot involved, the album could hardly fail to impress but what really grabbed my attention was Buckner’s vocals. Dark, broody and world-weary they might well have been but the melodies Buckner wrapped his tales in brought this music to life, and as one song bled into the next I was hooked. Even in the familiar surrounding of that shop, songs like ‘4am’ sent shivers down my spine. My initial thoughts were that ‘Devotion + Doubt’ was some kind of break-up album, but as time passed it was obvious that, like all Buckner’s albums, lyrically this songwriter often conceals a deeper meaning in a few words or with one line than many of his contemporaries do across a whole song. And, no, the guy in the shop wasn’t trying to make a few more pounds out of me. I hung around until the end of the album, and then he casually put another album on and placed Buckner’s back on the shelf. Like I was going to leave that place without it! Of course, the next thing was to check out Buckner’s previous albums. His debut, 1994’s ‘Bloomed’, and his self-titled second from 1996 were the place to start, but apart from that slightly quavering voice there was little to suggest that Buckner had much more to offer than any other acoustic-wielding singer/songwriter. Yes, lyrically he was already more than a little interesting, but in this stripped-back setting whatever it was that made ‘Devotion + Doubt’ so special was missing. Even so, Buckner had something, enough for me not to abandon his future work entirely. Both 2002’s ‘Impasse’ and especially ‘Dents and Shells’ from 2004 benefitted greatly from a fuller sound. After ‘Meadow’ in 2006 Buckner took a break from music, but returned with ‘Our Blood’ in 2011. That album was beset with problems. Buckner’s laptop with the songs on was stolen. There was major equipment failure and Buckner remade the album twice; many felt the album, although a return to the stripped-back sound of his early work, lacked inspiration. But it did spur Buckner on to make his latest album, ‘Surrounded’, in a way he hadn’t tried before. As soon as he’d completed each song he wasted no time in getting the song to producer Tucker Martine (Neko Case, R.E.M., The Decemberists); this time Buckner wasn’t going to take any chances. He wanted the songs completed and out before he had time to change anything or they got lost again. But Buckner didn’t intend to write an album just yet. His intention was to start writing short stories, but eventually the call of music was too strong and those stories formed the basis of the nine original songs on ‘Surrounded’. Recording the songs at home Buckner made the album even more of a challenge by using a couple of pieces of equipment that were unfamiliar to him, a Suzuki QChord electronic autoharp and an Electro-Harmonix POG2 pedal on the basic tracks. Our copy of ‘Surrounded’ is lacking in details of exactly what instruments made the final cut and which musicians are featured (the lyrics and stories from which they are culled are also apparently reproduced in the CD inlay. but they are available on Buckner’s website), but the overall sound lies somewhere between Buckner’s early stripped-back work and his later full-band sound. While Buckner created soundscapes on his previous work, they were always controlled soundscapes never sacrificing the beauty of his melodies for one second. The sounds produced on this collection are unlike anything Buckner has attempted before. The combination of that untried equipment and a producer who obviously understood and was sympathetic to where Buckner wanted to go with these songs has made this collection of soundscapes some of Buckner’s best. For this, his tenth album, Buckner creates a beguiling sound, ‘Portrait’ is one song where Buckner’s acoustic singer/songwriter roots make a showing, but the pretty melody and harmonies along with little electronic snatches of sound floating in and out of the song lift it into higher territory. It’s a wonderfully produced piece of music and just one of the occasions where the listener is reminded of John Grant’s solo work, although ‘Surrounded’ is certainly more instantly accessible and rewarding than ‘Pale Green Ghosts’. despite the albums being cut from the same musical cloth. ‘The incessantly nagging drone/feedback of ‘Foundation’ really eats into your soul. It’s impossible to get the song out of your head after a couple of plays. ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’, Eno’s debut album, is another album that springs readily to mind, but of course when it comes to vocals Buckner is in a different class entirely. ‘Surrounded’ is Buckner at his very best. It’s a fusion of his earlier work with a fresh, newly discovered sound; producer Martine was an inspired choice to fashion Buckner’s musical landscapes into addictive pieces of sound that finally match some of the mystery and uneasiness Buckner’s lyrics create. Ten albums in and Buckner is still pushing boundaries.

Track Listing:-
1 Surrounded
2 When You Tell Me How It Is
3 Beautiful Question
4 Foundation
5 Portrait
6 Mood
7 Go
8 Cut
9 Lean-To

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Our Blood (2011)
Glorrious and seemingly effortless first album in five years from acclaimed American singer-songwriter, Richard Buckner
Dents And Shells (2005)

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