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Richard Buckner - Dents and Shells

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Artist: Richard Buckner

Album: Dents and Shells

Label: Merge

Review date: Dec. 1, 2004

It's been exactly 10 years since the release of Richard Buckner's debut record, Bloomed, and in that time he's issued eight full-lengths on five labels, chronicled the disintegration of two marriages, lived north, south, east, and west (Edmonton, Austin, Brooklyn, San Francisco), and played your town more often than anybody. But in the same way that itinerancy is just a camouflaged form of consistency, Buckner's music only changes in subtle gradations. His hallmark is still that deep, rich, smoldering voice – as indescribable and unmistakable as the taste of hard water or the smell of burning leaves.

Buckner's latest effort, Dents and Shells, boasts Merge Records' cachet and a full-band backing (unheard since 1998's Since). His last two records were rooted in specific contexts: 2000's The Hill was based on Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology and 2002's Impasse described a breakdown with his wife and musical collaborator Penny Jo Buckner. Dents and Shells is not so rooted, but it's also less fragmentary than previous efforts. Still couching his occasional Imagist visuals ("watching / her sip wine from a camping cup") in vague vagaries, full of ellipses and enjambment, this time Buckner's melodies are less patchwork and more overarching. This is neither an obvious improvement nor a necessary hindrance – Impasse's lyrical and compositional impatience, the way it feverishly skirted its own ideas and tried to barrel past bulwarks of its own design, transposed its theme of disconnect formally. Many critics continue comparing Buckner to the sober and direct singer-songwriters of Texas country-folk tradition – Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely – but he's become too evasive, too impressionistic for that.

If Dents and Shells stands apart from Buckner's oeuvre in any way, it's in the prominence and evenhandedness of its instrumental arrangements. The driving percussion, the pedal steel flourishes, the nylon strings, the synth washes – there's a deliberate equilibrium that's interrupted only infrequently by aching melodic counterpoints ("Picture Day"), thundering mallets ("Charmers"), and swelling strings ("Her"). Buckner's voice lacks a little of the gruff, meandering bite that distinguished Devotion + Doubt, but he's still adept at casting a somber gloom over a song and then subverting it with the subtlest turn of inflection. Loathe to enunciating or hitting a note squarely on the first shot, his voice has its share of detractors, but if you're hooked you're hooked for good. There used to be a few more tangible holds to grab onto – patches of highway, wallet snapshots, glasses of rye – but new routes can just as easily end up at familiar destinations ("I pulled the rafters down, but the ghosts / were only dropping"). If little has changed, I'm no less happy for it.

By Nathan Hogan

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