Some might think of Kevin Barker’s music as unoriginal, but it’s more instructive to understand it as scholarly, in the manner of some of his musical heroes. He mines the work of Ashley Hutchings or Sandy Bull or any number of obscure British bands from around 1973 who made music that ripped off the Band as much as it cribbed from folk traditions. It’s almost exciting to see a musician who’s totally unabashed about his music nerd-dom making music that, one must imagine, sounds exactly like the music that he loves.
You & Me is Barker’s first album under his own name; previously, he recorded under the nom de plume of Currituck Co. Following the John Fahey-tinged indie-pop of his engaging debut, Unpacking My Library, he moved increasingly into the camp of the so-called “freak folk” crowd, accompanying the likes of Vetiver, Espers and Antony & the Johnsons. His own output tended increasingly towards sprawling acoustic-raga improvs and more ornate (instrumentally, at least) re-workings of earlier songs.
He has now gone electric, full-band country-rock, making a record that sounds like 1972, more Jesse Colin Young or maybe For Everyman-era Jackson Browne-meets-Jerry Garcia than Robbie Basho. He and his accompanists perform perfectly, with Barker’s elegant leads being one of, rather than the exclusive, focal point. The first song, “Little Picture of You,” begins in the middle of a strummed chord, as though the band started the jam moments before the tape began rolling, instantly breeding a laid-back, friendly vibe that runs through the record. Every song rolls along to a lackadaisical, shuffling beat, and most have that warm excess of instrumentalists (pianos, organs, maybe some strings) that gave the ‘70s iteration of this music its familial feeling. On “Amber,” Barker plays with that era’s confused Americana, twisting references to “amber waves” and a woman named Amber around each other until the country and the girl and the sentiments they evoke become one and the same.
“My Lady” is a truly lovely song, as plainspoken and direct in both lyrics and execution as any of the songs that might have served as its model, to the point where it almost doesn’t matter that the record was made in 2010 rather than whenever, last century. Barker’s studiousness — not to mention his prodigious guitar abilities — somehow overrides the artifice that infects a lot of nowadays country-rock. There’s no strain or pretension here, just a great, deliberate affection for music and its performance.