Now Hear This 2004

by PopMatters Staff

1 January 2004

NOW HEAR THIS 2004   Can’t figure out what to listen to? Listen to us. Once again, PopMatters’ music team presents a highly opinionated, undoubtedly superlative but ultimately revelatory examination of 18 artists that demand your attention. NOW.
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:: Best Singer-Songwriter to Recognize the Heart as a Muscle

Richard Buckner’s songs are snapshots of a moment, taken from the window of a car at 70 miles per hour. The images and emotions are fleetingly legible, yet more often smudge and blur in and out of comprehension, if only because they’re evolving as they’re sung. Postcards of embers, stones, bluffs, motels, cavernous nights trailing unexpected mornings: these are the images of Buckner’s travelogue.

The perfect compliment to Buckner’s sublime, ephemeral lyrics is his finely weathered voice. At times its gruff force seems capable of peeling husks from corn; other times, its soft trembling snakes its way around a melody like a wisp of smoke rises from a half-lit cigarette on the floor. Steady, knowing, and plaintive, his voice is the harbinger of unfortunate fate.

On record, Buckner injects each track with dirt, dust, humidity—the very essence of the song’s surroundings. Each album captures resonant Americana through a film noir lens. The Hill (2000) weaves a tapestry of acoustic guitars with a rich variation of tones: crystalline, gritty, and ashen; Since (1998) sculpts an unparalleled brand of seismic Black Hills rock with a host of session players; and Devotion + Doubt (1997) just may be the ultimate late night confessional, its charcoal-and-chalk foundations faintly illuminated with gentle fiddles, mandolins, and tremolo guitar.

During his two-year tenure on a major label, he was able to gather up a smidgen of notoriety, but has since recessed to the outskirts of the public’s peripheral vision. The major label was oblivious to his Promethean talent; subsequent indie labels apparently lacked the funds for proper promotion. Now in his mid-30s, Buckner has signed to Merge Records for the fall release of Dents & Shells. It would appear he’s finally in the hands of a label with the resources and desire to give a damn.

The first time I saw Buckner perform live was in the dead of winter at a rickety old bar in Northampton, Massachusetts. Bearded with long locks of dark hair, he sat at the feet of 50 people scattered on the floor of the bar’s back room. Flanked by his collection of acoustic guitars, effect pedals, and the incomparable Eric Heywood on pedal steel, he commanded the room with his imposing presence. You can’t help but be moved, as your breathing halts and you don’t realize it until you’re half-blue. He moves like the sensation of guilt, recites revelation, grants pardons, but most importantly, moves, moves, moves.

— Zeth Lundy

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