[6 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Donovan Quinn and Ben Chasny don’t necessarily seem like they would fit together the way they have as New Bums. Quinn’s work with the Skygreen Leopards certainly shares a love of psychedelia with any of Chasny’s work (Six Organs of Admittance, Comets on Fire, Rangda, and so on), but the Leopards kicked western dust up with country-folk boots while Chasny’s work tends to rise above, coating itself in stardust if anything. These two separate approaches would seem to make the duo’s new project a challenge, but New Bums sounds charmingly effortless, and Voices in a Rented Room provides a soft-spoken, laid-back set of acoustic tunes to dig into.
Perhaps it’s that simple approach, two guitars and two voices primarily, that keeps New Bums from falling into the trap of getting too fancy in combining the two players’ sounds. Rather than trying the more intricate compositions Chasny often revels in, he and Quinn get back to writing basics here. Guitars strum and twang along, and the two guys sing along through narcotic, sometimes mantra-like verses and choruses. Opener “Black Bough” is a luring incantation, lilting along on strummed acoustic guitar, rising and falling fills, and high-register vocals led by Chasny’s breathy voice. “There’s a wheelbarrow in my backyard,” the two sing, recounting its rust spots, its age, but also hinting that there’s work to do once they shake off the sweet exhaustion of the song. That work kicks in with the more playful “Pigeon Town”, with its rolling notes and biting lines (“You only get fucked in Pigeon Town”). Like “Your Girlfriend Might Be a Cop” and a few other moments here, Quinn and Chasny bring out some humor without things turning too goofy. There’s always a hint of focus to even the most laid-back moments here, and so though the vibe may be lax, the songs themselves rarely are on a structural or execution level.
The most interesting thing about Voices in a Rented Room may be its sequencing. Yes, Quinn and Chasny write similarly shaped songs here, but they are still two very different player, and the album seems to split itself in two. The first half focuses on Quinn’s dusty, circular chord phrasings, while the second half builds up on Chasny’s intricate finger-picking. The warm thrum of songs like “The Killer and Me” or the swampy hooks of “Your Bullshit” yield to the tangled pastoral feel of “It’s the Way”, the meditative rolling notes of “Burned”, or the buzzing and negative space of “Town on the Water”. This division makes for a nice mood shift on an album of such simple elements, but it also makes for an effort at self-understanding. New Bums seem to be using similar structures not to mesh their differences but to highlight them, and this self-awareness serves them well.
It’s a necessary wrinkle in an album that feels so basic and laid-back, because the tempo rarely shifts and what seems meditative at first later can feel a bit slack. The second half of the record, which starts to float above the dust, is the much stronger, more adventurous part of the record, and it takes some of the steam out of fun but ultimately slight numbers like “Pigeon Town” and “Your Girlfriend Might Be a Cop”. “Your Bullshit”, on the other hand, with its rumbling guitars and rare use of percussion, digs down into the muck in a way many of these songs don’t, and it feels like an avenue worth exploring later in the New Bums’ future. Because Voices in a Rented Room is, at its best moments, most certainly the start of something fruitful, even if there are a few small bumps early in the road.