A decade ago, Curtis Harvey made music as a member of the band Rex. Their sprawling songs earned them a classification under the subheadings of post-rock or slowcore, but the roots of their music were found in more traditional directions. Like Red Red Meat, with whom they would collaborate in the Loftus project, Rex took a few pages from the Americana template and skewed things ever-so-slightly. Tempos were a key point of focus for them: slowing their rhythms down so that the music’s textures might match the sandpaper rasp of Harvey’s voice. The effect was a success on a number of levels: rich enough for sonic obsessives to repeatedly revisit, accessible enough to make for a pleasurable listen whether or not the subcategories invoked above held any resonance for the listener.
Box of Stones is Harvey’s first solo album and, on the first listen, sounds much more traditionally “traditional.” Banjos are in abundance, and Harvey’s lyrics are domestic in scope, with a focus on his family and home in upstate New York. While there’s definitely a precedent for this in Harvey’s discography, this approach has its inherent flaws: “Borrowed Time,” in particular, weaves dangerously close to the boundary between archetypal and generic.
Overall, however, Harvey’s musical restraint and intimate lyrical scope serves him well. The strain and tear of Harvey’s vocals seem vastly different in this context: at times, his rasp seems at ease, while at others, he taps into a particularly domestic sort of frustration. With the minimal number of instruments heard on Box of Stones, that voice is as important here for the feel it creates as for the lyrics it sings. Or, as he sings on “Medicine”: “Beauty lies in the din.”
Harvey sounds relaxed here, even loose. Though it evolves into something more emotionally complex, the first thing that comes to mind when listening to the aforementioned “Medicine” is its lyrical riff on Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” in which Harvey croons, “I was in the basement/ Messin’ with Con Edison.” (It’s clever, but also a little groan-inducing.) Far more impressive is Harvey’s slight subversion of the template in which he’s working. While the banjo and guitar melodies at the heart of these songs could just as easily be 20 or 40 years old, his use of vocals is subtly modern and memorably dissonant. The field-recorded chorus of “Seen,” for instance, finds Harvey backed by a barroom full of voices, while a multi-tracked but slightly out of sync harmony vocal helps make “Across the Sea” that much more memorable, the line “dance to the band” lingering for a moment longer than expected. In the end, it’s touches such as these that make Box of Stones resonate, that will prompt the same return listens as the rest of Harvey’s discography.