Is it possible to be both pop and experimental? Can the basics of melody and hook exist happily with found sound, unconventional structure, and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation? I’m sure Paul Duncan didn’t give these questions much thought when he was composing Be Careful What You Call Home and it’s to his credit that the album sounds as unselfconscious and organic as it does.
The temptation with Paul Duncan is to lump his music in with the freak folk movement. Duncan’s gentle tempos and melodicism coupled with his penchant towards adding layered electronic effects and found sounds initially draws comparisons to Akron/Family. There are points during Be Careful What You Call Home where you can hear ghosts of Duncan’s Southern roots trying push their way through via banjo or a phrasing that recalls more traditional songwriters like Jimmy Webb. But the soil that Duncan has made is thick and those sprouts rarely bloom into something traditional, though they remain recognizable.
There’s something insular about Be Careful What You Call Home, an element of unselfconscious inward focus that defies the more overtly theatrical moments of Devendra Banhart or Angels of Light. This is due at least in part to the fact that Duncan plays just about everything on the album. In addition to recording and mixing duties Duncan lists writing, Vocals, guitars, bass, Rhodes, piano, melodica, synths, glockenspiel, drums, percussion, computer, and harmonica as his responsibilities. While he does get help in bit and pieces, a violin here, additional drums there, a banjo on one song, there’s little doubt as you listen to Be Careful What You Call Home that Duncan is having a fairly intense conversation with himself and creating a personal musical vernacular as he goes: getting swept up in his creation is the fun of Be Careful What You Call Home.
Duncan’s songs tend to unfold slowly presenting themselves in bubbling bits that add up to convincing wholes. He’s at his most abstract during his instrumental pieces; during these songs Duncan abuts his organic instrumentation (guitar, glockenspiel, piano) against unsettling moments of static or gentle pieces of found sound. The middle section of Be Careful What You Call Home is Duncan at his best. He takes us from the instrumental “Toy Bell” which builds towards a disturbing buzz of feedback before entering into “You Look Like An Animal”, one of his most confident pieces of songwriting and singing, which is followed by the instrumentals “Toy Piano”, with its click clack rhythms, “Manhattan Shuffle”, backed by the sound of falling rain over guitar and bits of percussion, “Toy Bass”, a driving bass line recalling Broken Social Scene’s most coherent moments, before ending up with “Oil in the Fields”, a gorgeous collection of memories that opens with “I remember Father’s ring” and finishes with the line “and yes I have been drinking”. Each song, instrumental or vocal, no matter how oddly populated always finds a line of melody to return to. This is Duncan’s greatest strength: he writes beautiful, captivating melody that allows him to slide into the experimental without tearing the listener from the experience of the song. His songs often feel like lullabies in which he strokes our heads in comfort while telling us a most disturbing fairy tale.
Be Careful What You Call Home is a confident album unafraid of risk or melody, happy with both a pop sensibility and an experimental edge. It’s a tricky tightrope that Duncan is able to navigate with aplomb.