Folk Wisdom

Written by Mishka Shubaly on . Posted in Posts.

Slow liquid is the metaphor with which to understand the guitar of Kevin Barker on You & Me, his solo debut. Not just the gurgling country brook, but also hard lemonade, a hot toddy, Irish coffee, simple syrup, molasses and of course, honey; his licks are sweet, simple and pleasing, so restrained that they sound reluctant to leave his guitar but when they finally descend, you marvel at the shimmering golden coils, piling up for an instant before dissipating.

His press release pimps his work with pillars of the ‘freak folk’ scene like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and even the mother of them all, Vashti Bunyan, and this record gives ample evidence why he’s a sideman of choice as his notes winnow out their space without treading on the vocals or overloading the song. But don’t let the company he keeps pigeonhole this record: it’s very much a stripped down country rock album in the tradition of under sung songwriter JJ Cale’s Naturally. The arrangement on the title track restricts itself to guitar, bass, drums, piano and two voices and manages to sound both creamy and spare at once. The bass sleeps on some fills, the drums slurp out of the pocket at times… There is not some over caffeinated engineer frantically nudging the beats onto a grid on some monolithic, pixel-greedy monitor. The fingerstyle guitar is distinctly unweird while deftly dodging the country tropes abused by other Brooklyn 70s revivalists. Barker’s voice is clear but warm and open as if he were actually relaxed and not just anxiously cultivating a relaxed vibe. This outing elicits comparisons to great songwriting guitarists from Nick Drake to Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian to, yeah, even quieter Jimi Hendrix.

I caught him play during the depths of the blizzard of 2009, a show at The Stone that fell victim to winter’s stylishly late and nearly show-stopping entrance. It was the right venue, from The Stone’s almost unmarked entrance to the black paint already peeling from the worn wooden floor like the finish from the hip of a road-worn guitar. There was no band and his rig was no-frills, verging on ascetic—a newish Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, a three pickup Telecaster and the same white stompbox tuner slowly corroding in a damp rehearsal space. No rhinestone bedazzled Nudie suit, he wore jeans and heavy winter boots and, in a halting conversation with the event’s curator, decided aloud that the noisy radiator should be left on as a concession to comfort. Despite the strength of the record, I confess to worrying that it was going to suck. Of course, he was even more rhythmically confident and assured solo, speaking directly to the tempo without having a drummer act as a translator. He’s nailed not just narrative melodic lines but also the subtler moves like Sterling Morrison’s burbling stutter on The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” I did miss the band’s fluid roll-and-tumble, the drums bouncing like Neil Young’s “Out On The Weekend” but only because I’d heard the record: Barker’s guitar easily carried the songs, the show and the night.

You & Me
delivers such immediate and lasting pleasure that it seems in bad faith to subject the songs to a lengthy literary analysis but, well, it’s a hard world and when your album photos make you look like both an Amish farmer and a ’70s session player, it inspires investigation. The lyrics don’t reach much higher than a certain homey introspection and there’s never any sign of instability, which means there’s not a whole lot at stake. Inspiring as the natural world is, Barker’s lyric sheet has more summer wheat/ spring green/ ocean/ sand than a Land’s End catalog. And what’s this, a song featuring “wide eyes,” that hateful word “childlike” and lutes? For shame.

Still, when so many songwriters sound noosed and waiting for the block of ice to melt, Barker gets big points for honesty when he sings “Life has never been so very hard to me/ life has never been like a blues song/ People move in and out like freighter ships/ and fall in love again before very long.” He’s describing a normal, unspecial life, and as such, one open to moments of swooning beauty and great possibility.