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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005 08:39 am

sound patrol 1-13-05

Listen to his voice, and it all makes sense

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Richard BucknerDents and Shells (Merge)

Richard Buckner
Dents and Shells
(Merge)

A former acquaintance of mine -- pretty, intelligent, seemingly sane, and legally married -- used to be obsessed with Richard Buckner. She claimed that they were in a serious secret relationship, that he'd already immortalized her in a well-known song lyric. Every time he passed through town, which was often in those days, she staked out a spot near the stage and began plotting their postgig makeout itinerary. Before long, she left her job and her husband so that she could follow her idol around full-time. Alas, according to a mutual acquaintance, Buckner got creeped out by her peripatetic devotion and told her to go home. Ouch. This sad, sleazy, and possibly apocryphal tale isn't significant in itself -- groupies are a quirky, inexplicable lot, with all manner of priorities and preferences -- but it does support my theory that Buckner is an underground sex symbol, capable of making ordinary women do irrational and embarrassing things.

Granted, he seems like an unlikely heartthrob, even in the esoteric circles of postfolk/alt-country fandom: Tall and a bit pudgy, with limp hair and a vaguely Neanderthal brow, Buckner is no young Elvis. Though he's not what you'd call ugly, he's not the type of guy you'd look at twice if he manned a cash register instead of a microphone. But check out his audience sometime while he's playing, and you're sure to witness dozens of rapt upturned female faces, all frozen in permanent-adoration mode.

"We are ugly," Leonard Cohen famously sang, "but we have the music." Indeed, Buckner's sex appeal makes perfect sense when you listen to his voice, a reedy baritone that keens and moans and subsides in a flourish of bright curlicues. A gifted practitioner of folk melismatics (think Dolly Parton, Jay Farrar, and pretty much every old-time Appalachian singer ever recorded by Alan Lomax), Buckner is seldom content to sing one note where three or four might do; his voice slithers around the melody, approaching it from every angle, lingering over the various tonal possibilities before settling on its target. It seems less a matter of technique than of sensibility, a tentativeness that speaks to a larger existential stance, a reluctance to commit to anything save his own fleeting impressions. So intensely personal that they seem hermetic, Buckner's songs are tiny mysteries, both colloquial and strange. He's not one for long, fancy words, but even so, it's not easy to parse his elliptical fragments, to impose some kind of order on what appears to be a blur of disjointed observations and half-remembered dreams. Yet he sings with so much conviction and abandon that he invests the surreal shards, so impenetrable on paper, with layers of meaning.

On Dents and Shells, his sixth studio full-length and his first release on Merge, Buckner seems to be moving away from the DIY approach of his last few albums in favor of a more fleshed-out rock-band treatment. The guest musicians, who include ex-Meat Puppet Andrew Duplantis and Butthole Surfer King Coffey, augment Buckner's compositions without compromising their minimalist aesthetic, anchoring the free-floating melodies and imparting a solidity that seemed elusive on his previous release, Impasse. Although Buckner reportedly wrote all of the songs for the new CD in a few days, they stand up against the best work in his decade-long career. "How close is just too far?" he asks on the gorgeous "Invitation," a slow, dreamy seduction of pedal steel, piano, organ, acoustic guitar, and gentle snare drum. It's capital-R romantic in a quintessentially Bucknerian vein, at once scared and hopeful, a love song for people who aren't sure they still believe in love songs. And, yeah, the chicks will dig it.

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