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Bunkbed - Swimming Back To Shore Without Me

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Artist: Bunkbed

Album: Swimming Back To Shore Without Me

Label: Turn/Let's Go

Review date: Oct. 8, 2003

Music is very good at expressing two things: extreme joy and complete devastation. These two emotions inspire either intense activity or numb withdrawal, and in both cases, music facilitates this very well. The desire to celebrate is a desire to revel in the electric spontaneity of life, to dance, scream, do a headspin. Happiness by its very nature is an embrace of vitality, to the simple wonder of existence. Sadness, on the other hand, implies a withdrawal, an evacuation from the circumstances that brought about an initial hurt. Bathed in the warm, nostalgic cocoon of music, one can exist in a prone, depressed state indefinitely.

Generally, we like to think of music as an emotional companion, an echo to our feelings. The truth, however, is probably more complicated and somewhat darker. If “happy” music can lift our spirits, can’t “sad” music drag us down, prolonging whatever low spirits we’re experiencing? It’s true that sounds can provide an empathic experience, not just the sense for a teen that someone out there “understands” his life, but a voiced echo, a mirror of emotions. For, it’s not just the whispered longing of Bedhead that makes their music so gripping. The warmly soothing undertow of the music gives the songs a gently lulling sense of melancholy, one that fills every crack in the band’s sound. And while it’s certain that people listen to Bedhead and other “slowcore” bands for a variety of reasons, prolonged exposure to the stuff will most likely have an effect on your state of mind. It won’t simply make you “sad” in the broadest sense, but music is uniquely connected to our emotional sense, and music like Bedhead’s provides a warm, nostalgic undertow to our emotional state, a comforting companion to longing and loss. And, just as sadness can be addictive, so can sad bands, returning us to the sublime, fragile state that melancholy imparts.

Bunkbed belongs to the late-nineties batch of slow-core bands, and has more than a similar name in common with Bedhead. But while Bedhead’s raison d’etre was the extended, gliding mesh of guitars and a deft control of dynamics, Bunkbed has gravitated towards a more Velvet Underground-inspired strumming drone. Bunkbed’s primary singer, songwriter, and player was Keith Krate, who home recorded with occasional help from other friends in the Northern California scene. Krate died suddenly last summer, after two years of recording Swimming Back To Shore Without Me, which imparts an unintended but inescapable mournfulness to the album.

On its own, the record is a sad affair, full of failure and longing, and a resonant sense of loneliness. What redeems the album, both musically and experientially, is Krate’s gift for melody and the wide range of contributors, particularly a handful of female vocalists, that accompany his sturdy but relatively limited voice. A particular success along these lines is “Laughing All The Time”, a mid-tempo song in the Velvets mold that begins with only a cello and a gentle guitar accompanying Krate’s voice. When the chorus hits, a steady beat kicks in, as does the thin but remarkably effective voice of Marcy Saude. It’s an old trick, but when it works it works, and it’s this kind of economy with his arrangements that Krate uses to strong effect throughout the album.

Krate’s death does hang over the album, in its own way, but it feels strange and slightly removed. Bunkbed is not tremendously well-known, Krate even less so, and it’s akin to finding out that someone you didn’t know in your high school has passed away. It’s sad, of course, but in a way that doesn’t exactly hit on a personal level. Instead, the loss hits over the course of the album, as Krate’s detailing of a fractured, drifting personality gathers a slow emotional momentum. The loss, to the listener, is the loss of potential. Bunkbed demonstrates considerable growth from Krate’s previous projects, and it’s sad and frustrating to recognize that there will be no more output from an obviously talented musician.

This is, ultimately, the most direct and honest tribute to Krate, a musician who quietly and diligently worked to produce honest, affecting music. There’s a certain quiet integrity to the work here, which never attempts to call attention to itself or reach further than its grasp allows. Instead, Krate simply creates a space for his particular strengths to flourish. And over the course of the album, as the songs gather weight, Swimming Back To Shore Without Me reveals itself to be a little gem, full of quiet beauty, some lovely instrumentals, and a handful of solid pop songs. This is by far the most collaborative Bunkbed release yet, and it would have been wonderful to hear Krate continue in this path, as Jason Molina of Songs:Ohia has done. Of course, this isn’t possible, another possibility sadly lost.

If sad music has the ability to wrap us in a mollifying embrace, it also carries with it the possibility of renewal. By allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in certain emotions, we can come out the other side with a renewed perspective. Despite the obviously mournful qualities of Swimming Back To Shore Without Me, it exudes a subtle but consistent sense of uplift, the feeling that hopeful possibilities exist. This uncanny quality prevents the album from disappearing down a black hole, and it provides a fitting summation of Krate’s contributions.

By Jason Dungan

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