Kevin Morby meanders on ‘Sundowner’

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

Folk singer Kevin Morby has always made relaxed, lounging music centered around his smooth guitar and whiskey voice. On Sundowner, he maintains this legacy, injecting very little freshness into his formula, but refining it and carefully working it like a gardener trimming a bonsai tree.

Morby’s songs meander aimlessly, but it’s a sort of deliberate aimlessness. The acoustic guitar strums without stress, and Morby sings with a tepid sadness. He has a forcefulness in his voice, pushing out lines on “Valley” with a gentle but firm emphasis. And his voice has a softness to it, too, on “Sundowner,” in which his deft guitar playing supplements his lyricism.

This guitar playing dominates Sundowner, a broadly acoustic album that depends on the ambience of its acoustic lead. Other instruments come in, too — the thudding, sinister beats of “Brother, Sister” and the lively harmonica of “Wander,” for example — but the guitar is large and in charge. This dependence on the guitar is standard for Morby, but it creates an album that is too self-similar to stand out.

Sundowner has plenty of guitar songs, and many of them are fine. A few, however, are great: “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun” is brilliantly basic while still holding weight and texture, and this allows for Morby’s voice to shine through more than on many of the album’s other songs. His pace when singing the song’s title is particularly delightful, but this song owes a large credit to its circular, drum machine beat. The percussion adds to the song’s simple, grainy melody.

This subtle percussion, though secondary to Morby’s acoustic guitar, is core to Sundowner. Tinkling wind chimes, crashing tambourines and plodding drumbeats form the percussive base of the album, and, though they rarely have time to truly stand out, add effectively to the album’s ambient approach.

Also adding to this approach are the other instruments on the album, evident in the reverberating nature of the chorus on “Provisions.” The production, too, helps to make Sundowner an echoing and yawning album. It tells the story of a lost place, an empty place — far away from anything else, where only wanderers may go. It is whimsical in that sense, and it seems to only ever find cynicism or negativity in its lyrics. Even then, the lyrics are not nihilistic, but simply descriptive, acknowledging the world around Morby without having much of an opinion about anything.

Many songs have strong moments weakened by generic folk guitar. “Wander,” for example, takes too long to build to its short but strong percussive section, teasing out some screeching guitars before finally punching along with Morby as he sings about his heart beating. It’s certainly trite and a little overdone, but the harmonica is effortlessly assuring.

With all this ambience, Morby uses storytelling and scenery to paint a larger narrative of a nomad wandering from place to place, as nomads are known to do. “A Night at the Little Los Angeles” sees Morby flexing his descriptive muscles, with flowery and poignant language forming the emotional center of the song, bolstered by a timid but noticeable idiophone.

Few songs are not dominated by guitar and vocals, but “Velvet Highway” puts both aside in favor of a tenderly hammering piano and a stormy aura. This song, in fact, reveals the issue with Sundowner: Morby squanders his artistic potential by fixating on where he has already succeeded, and songs such as “Velvet Highway” demonstrate that he is capable of more.

But perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps Morby will always be able to make soft and embellished folk music, songs for loneliness and introspection. These songs may be empty and wandering, but it is in empty, winding reflection that Morby excels, and the role of wandering as the thematic focus of Sundowner allows the music on the record to wander as well.

Sundowner bends and fluctuates, gently drifting back and forth like an aspen in the wind. It’s soft, sincere and driven heavily by lyricism and guitar. It’s exactly what one would expect from an indie folk album.

Crew Bittner covers music. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.