If one thing about Kevin Morby’s latest LP, City Music, immediately leaps out, it’s the sense of playfulness. The album is not light and fluffy by any means, but there is this unflappable feeling of spontaneity and glee that instantly grabs your attention. This is the fourth solo outing from The Babies’ frontman. Like his 2016 effort, Singing Saw, the album is a mixture of folk quiet intensity and some rollicking good rock music. While it never becomes a great collection, it is one of the more thoroughly and consistently pleasant and enjoyable releases of the year.
As mentioned before, the eclecticism of his music is inarguably Kevin’s greatest success. Over forty-eight minutes, the man dips his toes into bitter country music, spoken word poetry, fuzz driven indie, and even an excursion into Lorde-like minimalism. Each of these songs has their own identity. ‘1234’ is the unashamed four to the floor throwback to garage rock from days of yore. It’s noisy and messy with these hypnotic looping vocal tics which culminate in Morby listing the original members of the Ramones like a religious chant: “Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy/Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy”. At the moment when you’re completely transfixed, the song takes a left turn and abruptly concludes with a bitterly funny, yet quite sad coda. This climax is sharply followed by ‘Aboard My Train’, a nostalgic lament for lost friendship. It uses its thumping, low-end bass with crisp drums and this bright, prominent piano to perfectly supplement the bittersweetness of the lyrics. This sequencing speaks to a level of quality too and there is a real consideration as to how this album will fit together and a definitive continuity of thought.
This is an album for the alien abroad in the urban sprawl. It moves in these strange, unpredictable patterns that are disorientating at first, but eventually fits together like a beautiful mosaic. Every street you head down, there’s a different story, a different world, and a different mind. Morby uses the little nugget of a narrative on ‘Flannery’ to contextualise the seven minute epic titular track. The tale deals with a young boy’s inability to recognise the cityscape. It’s a tiny trifle of an idea, but it’s central to the whole experience. “City Music”, in isolation, is a real treat. It is defined by a slow, minimalist beat that builds and builds to hyperkinetic guitar solos and a multitude of additional instruments colliding. It attempts to encapsulate the magic of a city’s culture as well as its homogeneity and it succeeds in its aim.
It’s actually a song like ‘City Music’ that highlights the LP’s chief flaw: most of the album is fairly standard. While all have a presence and do to do something unique, they don’t necessarily work to the same degree. ‘Dry Your Eyes’, ‘Crybaby’ and ‘Pearly Gates’, while fundamentally decent, are not essential. On the one hand, it is disappointing, because it has in its make up a number of incredibly interesting ideas which it doesn’t do enough with. But on the other, it’s hard to begrudge it for that. This was supposed to be sprawling by design. While is more of a failure than a hit, it’s an ambitious one and one that’s definitely worth a spin or five. Will Murphy