Well I Got This Guitar and I Learned How to Make it Talk: Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw

Will Schube tries to explain how Kevin Morby is sort of kind of like Bruce Springsteen, even though he's not. Singing Saw is great, though!
By    April 21, 2016

kevin morby

Will Schube will use any platform you give him to talk about Bruce Springsteen.

In 2011 Kevin Morby released an album with Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls. Their band was called The Babies, as was that album. One of my favorite songs on that record is called “Meet Me In The City,” partly for its infectious, ramshackle pace, and partly for what it says about Morby. Many artists are influenced by place, but its outward affect on the music is less common. For Morby, however, the impact of a city—its pace, its people, its overarching quality—plays directly into his songwriting experience.

You have The Babies, who channel New York’s energy into pop music both infectious and aggressive. His work with Woods is reactionary, the unleashed freak that New York can sometimes provoke and necessitate. Morby moved to LA in 2013, but his first post-NYC release, Harlem River, is an ode to the departed city. Still Life, his second solo release, is less influenced by home than it is by a lack of that comfort; the album’s title comes from Maynard Monrow’s “Land of Misfit Toys.”

So here we are in 2016 and Kevin Morby is comfortably situated in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles. And that’s supposedly what his latest, the just released Singing Saw (his first for Dead Oceans after spending some time with the good dudes at Woodsist), is about. This may come across superficially, but what makes Morby such an interesting songwriter is his interest in minutia. Along with the grand scales of Los Angeles and New York come many a daunting topic. Morby, despite his fascination with place, isn’t interested in these big details. He’s more micro than macro, more interested in the piece than he is the whole.

Singing Saw is Morby’s best work to date in part because of the confidence he exudes on the record. Harlem River has plenty of lovely moments, but it rarely sounds significant. “Wild Side” apes Bob Dylan’s delivery shamelessly, and while many songwriters have done that, only a few write strong enough music to get away with it. Morby never did, until now. And conveniently enough, he’s found his own voice to boot. The compositions on Singing Saw are complex and his voice is singularly his. “I Have Been to the Mountain” is a shuffling joint tight in groove and unrelentingly catchy. Morby’s fascination with the peripheral continues. The edges are always more interesting than what they contain.

While many of his forefathers swim in metaphors, Morby tends to the literal, even if his lyrics can be shrouded in abstractions. On “Drunk and On A Star,” he sings, “Oh I’m drunk, and on a star.” You can spend the time trying to figure out what he means, but chances are by the time you’ve got that line analyzed he’s moved on to the next richly imagistic phrase. “Ferris Wheel” functions in much the same way. You get what you get. Song titles exist for a reason. He sings, “Riding on that ferris wheel/A chair up in the sky/Well I lose my mind sometimes.” From there he moves to carousels, the horses stronger than you’ve ever noted, I’m sure.

A lot of Singing Saw reminds me of Cass McCombs’ best stuff. Music that’s satisfied in its seeming simplicity, revealing its layered skins only after multiple listens. The incessant lull of Singing Saw’s pacing acts as a barrier, and it’s only once you work past this that the album really starts to pop. The yelped chorus of “Black Flowers” sprouts from the ground dramatically, exaggerated by the delicate complacency of its prior sections. It’s an odd counterpoint to his face value lyrics, but a little bit of contradiction goes a long way.

Morby treats his musical cues like Bruce Springsteen did on Born To Run—an odd reference point for music this meandering, but it’s more stylistic than formal. And this is all fairly inconsequential, but who doesn’t love talking about Bruce fucking Springsteen? The Boss cued Clarence’s horn with an instructive, “When the change was made uptown/and the Big Man joined the band” on “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” Clarence brings a power and ease to the saxophone that will be never be replicated, and the Earth is a worse place without the Big Man hanging around. On “Thunder Road” Bruce sings, “So I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.” And guess what happens? That guitar talks. Loudly. Morby is equally instructive with his instruments. On the grinding, buzzing “Dorothy,” Morby channels that New Jersey tongue and cues up a delicate piano interlude after calling out to it. He even gets that goddamn guitar to sing on “Drunk and On A Star!”

This is fun and all, but Singing Saw’s most gorgeous moment comes with album closer “Water.” Equal parts Bible hymn and spiritual cleansing, the album’s eight tracks serve as clouds and “Water” is the moment when a little bit of sunshine peaks through. There’s a desperation in Morby’s voice, as he pleads, “If you find water/Please call my name/Put me out like a fire/Cover me in rain.” Then the drums kick in and the piano joins in for a nice hop, skip, and a jump. Morby even enlists a goddamn choir for the finale. If there’s such a thing as a subtle firework, this is it. And that’s kind of what Singing Saw encapsulates: that subdued flame, the bright light swallowed by a million brighter lights. No wonder he likes LA.