Our Blood, the 2011 LP from Brooklyn's Richard Buckner, resounds with conflict. Stripped-back guitars strum with nervy intensity, augmented by jagged slices of keys and noise and melancholy washes of pedal steel and organ that seem overcome by the stress. Over the top, Buckner's magnificent baritone, which somehow maintains a balance between breathy and burly, picks its way through narratives that avoid specificity but still manage to create a singular sense of foreboding.
Opener “Traitor” pairs an endlessly driving, bass-heavy riff with menacing electric piano and downtrodden but beautiful pedal steel. The words lack details but are packed with emotion. The main character is trapped in a no-win situation where the stakes seem graver because they're never revealed. “Sold what you sold, woke where you'd lie,” Buckner growls softly. “And said what they wouldn't to the shadows in the night.” Shortly after, the song devolves into a chaotic bridge where harsh noise underpins howling guitar. As the clamor dies down, Buckner whispers, “Watch that temper now.” It's a threat of coming violence that never arrives, and it creates paranoia that's all the more affecting because there is no resolution.
Our Blood is Buckner's ninth LP and his first in five years. Desperation and darkness have been a constant in the experimental alt-folkie's near-two-decade career, but there's an immediacy to the discord here that burns hotter than much of his past work. It's an aesthetic that makes sense when you consider the obstacles that befell Buckner during the record's creation.
After 2006's Meadow Buckner put his energy toward scoring a movie that has yet to premier. When he turned it in, he had a good amount of other music he'd created in the process, and he planned to use it in his next LP. This plan was shot down when the digital work station he'd home-recorded on for years crashed. It took the rest of the film score with it, so Buckner started from scratch, beginning to write songs and put them to tape. When he was pretty far along the machine crashed again. He recovered a solid amount of his recordings this time. He decided they needed some changes and reworked them again. He turned in the subsequent mix, but when he got it back it he still wasn't satisfied.
“I quickly changed some things, recorded a fourth time and set a mastering date, so I couldn’t keep going, so I’d have to stop. I put myself on a leash,” he says, noting that the process was hindered further when his laptop containing notes and mixes was stolen from his house. “It's been a struggle.”
Buckner says the hardship of the past five years likely informed his attitude on Our Blood, but he insists that he went about its creation the same way he always approaches recording. He's dealt with struggle before. Sticking by his outsider style got him kicked out of a deal with major label MCA in the late '90s. Struggle is also a constant part of his process. With every new project he installs what he calls “handicaps,” new wrinkles in technique or execution that he has to adhere to while making it.
“If you put something in as an obstacle, it’s something you have to work around,” he says. “If I have to work around something, I’m not on autopilot. Most of the time it pays off. Most of the time there’s something that happens during the process that takes you in a direction, and you get some happy accident.”
For Our Blood, Buckner forbade himself to strum standard six-string guitars. This decision led to the interesting guitar sounds that set the record apart. Using tenor guitars and regular guitars with odd tunings, Buckner deployed multiple instruments to create one chord. This gives the strumming on Our Blood a tense, other-worldly feel that meshes easily with the songs' elliptical narratives.
This eccentric practice highlights an important truth about Buckner: He does things his way. In the past that's meant releasing a one-track record with a song-cycle based on a century-old poem (2000's The Hill). This time it meant insisting that a concise, 10-song LP be just the way he wanted it despite five years of turmoil.
“It’s just the way I do it,” he says. “It’s not really something I think about or something I want to go for. It’s just the way that I do it. I’ve never gone back to repeating choruses too often because it doesn’t find a place in the writing part for me. It’s not a choice. I’m born this way. It’s like being gay or something.”
— Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Richard Buckner, with Angela Faye Martin
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Oct. 8 (9 p.m. $12/$15. Seated show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)