[7 May 2009]
New York native Kevin Devine has carved out a niche for himself among the singer-songwriters of Brooklyn, but there is no denying the influence Staten Island has had on the young artist’s life. While barely in high school the precocious red-head performed adjacent to the scrappiest of hardcore bands from Brooklyn and Shoalin, and he emerged as one of the most promising acts to come from that beleaguered scene. Sure there’s The Budos Band, Pablo and, um, Ingrid Michaelson but Devine somehow manages to embrace the communal spirit of the borough that nurtured him while at the same time rising above it.
Devine’s first album since a very brief major-label stint goes lengths to establish him as an intelligent and versatile songwriter. The lazy comparisons to Conor Oberst and Elliot Smith still persist, and one may disagree with execution, but Brother’s Blood shows a true songsmith at work. Devine is poetic without being sappy, political without being preachy, crafting imagery and narratives that far exceed the imagined quota of his humble home at the Favorite Gentleman record label. Like Daryl Strawberry in his heyday, the venue seems to big for his presence, and Devine simply knocks it over the fence more often than not.
For such a collaborative effort the album starts off, oddly, with Devine himself on “All of Everything, Erased”. The singer hops on some XO-type ground, navigating multiple chord changes and spitting out metaphors of “flaming Ferris Wheels” and “singing sea shells”. It’s the post-Elliot Smith folk song, but Devine owns it, making a simple-yet-elegant acoustic tune. He hits some similar highs on “It’s Only Your Life” and the ending track “Tomorrow’s Just Too Late” (this time strumming and using backing vox) but the majority of the effort strays from the bare-boned approach.
The nearly eight-minute-long “Brother’s Blood” is more on the Tim Kasher/Cursive-tip with it’s plodding verse of introspective lyrics and eventual climax of screams. Halfway through the track we are even treated to some flutes(!) as Devine’s new backing band starts to rear its head. “Hand of God” uses an infectious hand-clap that’s sure to please indie-lovin’ audiences from the Bowery to Berlin. And “Fever Moon” has Spanish strums and wood block percussion: a stone-cold love song with an aching hook. The song peaks when the twinkling guitar fuses with some light horns. It’s the kind of heartstrings crap that only maybe John Mayer could pull off. And I mean that in the best possible way.
“Another Bag of Bones” showcases the writer’s Fordam pedigree with a litany of loaded phrases: “lawyer’s smile,” “mushroom cloud,” “flag draped casket down an oil well.” Along with his casual references to African militias and conflict diamonds the images are what makes the song, and album, such a potent, heady force—you never know what potential weapon Devine has looming around the corner. And every song has its own unique place. “Murphy’s Song” chugs along happily to some whimsical lyrics. Devine even revisits his days of pop-punk with “I Could Be With Anyone”, a song that burtsts with upbeat crunches, a soaring chorus, even some unobtrusive synth work.
It’s too bad that Devine got caught up in all that major label hoohah, though it may have ultimately benefited him: the talent is certainly there and his skills have only improved with time. He’s assembled a solid team behind him, and looks to be treading in comfortable territory, but I’m convinced he still has a quite a journey ahead of him. His fans can only hope he finds himself a permanent home (whatever label, or borough, that may be) and continues to make these palpable folk songs.