Friday, February 12, 2010
November, November - Horse Stories (Winter 2010)
Perfect Black Swan Records.
SCQ Rating: 85%
Quality songwriters don’t come around as often as we’d like them to. Really, it isn’t about a song they’re pushing or even a particular sound they’re toting so much as a demeanor, a vulnerability that you can relate to. In that respect, choosing to follow a songwriter’s work with any determination is like choosing a friend; you want someone you can share ideals and desires with, and yet someone you don’t entirely understand. Toby Burke, the Los Angeles via Australia-based artist behind Horse Stories, broke the ice for me with ‘Hummingbird’, a gentle folk song so pure and powerful it’s nearly gospel in its ethereal build. If ‘Hummingbird’ hints at the promise of great things, November, November provides proof of those declarations and the beginnings of an assured friendship.
Originating in a windowless garage under Burke’s LA house, these songs have endured three years and countless demos of transformation and refinement, as Horse Stories reinvented his stylistic approach. And as November, November spread track-by-track from my stereo, I kept those details close to heart, hoping no brash guitar or clumsy lyric would interrupt Burke’s patient flow. Luckily – no, incredibly – this album’s trial of refinement has resulted in no such wayward decision; instead, Burke has hewed ten impeccable tracks, founded on acoustic guitar but stretched with bouts of percussion and strings so engaging, their emotional resonance outlasts their economic run-times. The dexterous drumming and finger-picked guitar that announces ‘Standing In the Snow’ sets a bleak scene of two stubborn people, possibly lovers, figuring each other out while the odd electric outburst blows through a frigid breeze. With a harder edge but no less patient is ‘Hole In the Head’, where Burke repeats – as if the impossible has come true – “I made it, I made it,” before a crest of quietly aching guitar-work. Although November, November’s first half, rounded out by the charmingly nostalgic ‘Telephone Message…’, cannot be trumped, the record’s second half nearly succeeds in matching it. Burke’s deliberate pacing on ‘The Weight’ and ‘Believer’ crests with the latter, sturdy and string-laden, before settling confidently upon two soft closures. As ‘Rockinghorse’ pleads for the return of a runaway over antique piano and soft horn, ‘The TV’ seemingly sums up all of November, November’s tasteful markers – subtle vocal echoes, pastoral acoustics, acute moments of drama – in its stirring, choral refrain.
To open one’s album with a song as instantly loveable as ‘Hummingbird’ is a no-brainer; what separates Burke from the many one-hit troubadours, however, is that November, November’s nine subsequent tracks are as good, if not better. Between the lyrics and in Burke’s slight twang, I can’t help but hear elements of Ryan Adams, moody but confessional, touching these songs as if passing the torch from one great songwriter to another. In Horse Stories lies a worthy successor to the folk crown, no doubt, as well as a friend you never knew you had.