Kevin Barker has spent the last few years orbiting the so-called “freak folk” movement, playing bass and/or guitar with the likes of Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom. He calls in a lot of favors on You & Me his debut album as a frontman and songwriter. As a result, his backing band features a lot of people from that crowd, including Newsom on keyboards on a couple of tracks and Eric Johnson (Fruit Bats, The Shins) doing backing vocals here and there. Those contributions are relatively minimal, though, as these are all Barker’s songs, with his voice and guitar out front on every track.
It turns out that Barker is far less adventurous than some of his compatriots, because You & Me is an album full of pleasantly rolling folk-rock songs that don’t break any new ground and aren’t particularly distinctive. There’s nothing here that’s out-and-out bad, but very little of it sticks with the listener after the album is finished. The mid-tempo opener “Little Picture of You” is about as upbeat as Barker gets, with layered harmonies from Johnson and Lily Chapin, a jaunty piano accompaniment from Pat Sansone, and catchy guitar from Barker himself. “Walking Along” starts off nicely enough with a small groove, but then Barker and company decide to enter jam-band territory and stretch the track out for nearly seven-and-a-half minutes. The little groove is about all there is to the tune, though, and it’s nowhere near interesting enough to sustain for that long, so the song runs out of juice about four minutes in. The lyrics of “Amber” cleverly reference and riff off of “America, the Beautiful”, with Amber as a person. “Amber waves goodbye / She leaves me to dry,” opens the song as Barker goes on to mention grain, majesty, and purple mountains. Musically, though, not much stands out about the song. It’s nice, but not very memorable.
Later in the album, Barker finds a little more success with “My Lady”, probably the most traditional folk-sounding song on the album. It has a catchy little guitar riff and some tasteful lap steel from Eric Johson over shuffling brushed drums while the lyrics are unabashedly romantic. But in the folk setting, it all comes together nicely for a strong three-and-a-half-minute song that doesn’t wear out its welcome. You & Me‘s quiet closer “Bless You on Your Way” also works surprisingly well. The rest of the disc is full of happy-sounding, lightweight tracks with clean electric guitar and piano. This song is instead freely melancholy, in a minor-key with only acoustic guitar and a string section for accompaniment. Once again, though, Barker makes a slight misstep by dragging the song out over six minutes and allowing the strings to swell a bit too loudly in the final two minutes, damaging the mood of quiet desperation.
Barker has a good voice that is well-suited to this kind of material and a good sense of how to accompany his voice with his guitar. The problem, then, is mostly that the songwriting just isn’t very strong. Dozens of bands have mined this folk-rock territory since Bob Dylan and The Band set down the template, and Barker’s songwriting isn’t interesting enough to set him apart at this point. Imagine the Felice Brothers without the old-timey revivalist feel (and the Dylan-aping voices), or jam bands like Moe. or Umphrey’s McGee if they just did quieter songs and weren’t sonically diverse. That’s pretty much what you get with Kevin Barker. Maybe some musicians just aren’t meant to step out in front of the band to do their own material.