It’s not often said that a singer-songwriter is only as good as the band that backs him. And there’s a good reason that it’s not said very often—it’s not really true. These are creatures primarily known for stripped-down arrangements, opting for competent yet unobtrusive backing musicians whenever possible. The point isn’t to pay attention to the guys in the back, it’s the one who’s pouring his heart into the lyrics, strumming and emoting at the center of the song. There are exceptions, namely Sufjan Stevens’ extremely elaborate arrangements and Paul Simon’s excursions into African music, but thankfully, there are also few singer-songwriters with dreadfully awful bands backing them.
Paul Duncan is a fine singer, and a great songwriter; this much is true. But part of what makes his album Above The Trees such a treat is that he has a fantastic set of musicians to back his weathered and weary ruminations. Duncan, himself, has a voice eerily reminiscent of Will Oldham, twangy and sounding aged beyond his years. Truthfully, whether augmented by a well-seasoned session team or playing solo with only six strings to support him, he sounds wonderful. It just so happens that on much of Above the Trees, he opts for the former, which makes it that much more of a rousing, rocking good time.
Simple plucks of acoustic guitar twinkle into the slow, soporific opening of “Red Eagle, which expands into a laid-back, yet gorgeous and scenic affair. Duncan’s lyrics are simple, yet vivid, offering the abstract contrast “you’re crying/ tonight by the sea/ you recall/ the grimmest memory/ while I/ am picturing the shark/ and whale/ both swimming in the dark.” Building on the prior tracks layers of strings and pedal steel, “The Fire” adds clarinet and trumpet, lazily swelling into a chamber-folk symphony. “Country Witch” has a countrypolitan glide to it, pedal steel creating a moody romanticism, though drummer Joe Stickney is credited as playing the shirts on this song. I don’t know if I could pick that out of the mix if I tried.
With “Parasail,” Duncan remains the prominent focus of the song, crooning “your holler cracks my ribs/ like tanker boats through ice,” yet a band of four provides a moody, droning background for his chilling imagery before exploding into a messy rock breakdown. Duncan, the master songwriter that he is, is a smart enough guy to give his songs the proper arrangement to allow their beauty to blossom. As much as that guy in the front with a guitar should ultimately remain the focus, it never hurts if three or four other fellers can tear it up alongside him.
Bonnie `Prince’ Billy and Matt Sweeney – Superwolf
Gram Parsons – GP
Jose Gonzalez – Veneer
MP3: “Red Eagle”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.