Desertshore's second album finds the formerly all-instrumental band adding Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek as a part-time vocalist. The results are often impressive, but ultimately mixed.
Desertshore's 2010 debut was an instrumental album, spearheaded by the band's leaders, guitarist Phil Carney and pianist Chris Connolly. Their second release Drawing of Threes departs from that template, though, featuring vocals on six of its ten tracks. Carney frequently collaborates with Mark Kozelek, of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon fame, so he brought Kozelek in as a producer on the album. Apparently Kozelek couldn't resist getting directly involved, so he ended up serving as vocalist and bassist throughout Drawing of Threes.
The result is a record filled with slow, quiet songs and often beautiful melodies, but one that also feels a bit slight, especially when it comes to the four instrumental songs at the end of the album. The decision to stack all six vocal tracks at the beginning and the instrumentals at the end is an odd one that ends up feeling a bit jarring. It's not so much that the instrumental songs sound significantly different from what comes before; they're definitely of a piece with the rest of the album. But three of the four tracks are under two minutes long, and each one sounds like a pleasant interlude more than a full song. Only closer "Matchlight Arcana" seems like a fully fleshed-out idea, with a four-minute running time and a strong recurring guitar melody from Carney. Connolly also earns his due on the song, using nicely arranged organ chords as an accompaniment and throwing in a bit of synth counter-melody as well.
As you'd expect, the opening section of the album is often dominated by Kozelek. He's been at the forefront of his own bands for 20-plus years, and while he isn't a bombastic presence in Desertshore, his personality and melodies tend to overwhelm the ostensible leaders of the band. Shambling opener "Diana" rides along on a buzz of distorted guitar and seems to eventually get to the point, but at six-and-half minutes it overstays its welcome. More successful is "Mercy", an acoustic guitar jam with a peppy melody and quiet but pretty harmonies. Connolly and Carney contribute a bit more personality to "Turtle Pond", a song so laid-back that it's almost inert. Kozelek's lyrics and melody seem more stream-of-consciousness here, and it's the interplay between Carney's clean electric guitar and Connolly's piano melodies that give the song its feel and mood.
It isn't until the middle of the album that Drawing of Threes really gets the most out of its three collaborators. The deceptively-named "Randy Quaid" finds no snark about the B-list actor. Instead, Kozelek once again sings what sounds like stream-of-consciousness lyrics, this time seemingly contemplative of summers past. The gently rolling guitar riff and brushed drums really reflect the feel of a calm, sunny summer day. The gorgeous "Vernon Forrest" has the album's best melody hands-down, a slow, aching minor-key piano theme. Kozelek wisely doesn't mess with what Connolly has created, doubling the piano melody in his vocals. Subtle string accompaniment adds texture, and really, that's all Kozelek does, too. I'm sure his lyrics have some sort of point, but it's difficult to even pay attention to them while listening to the gorgeous piano part. Finally, the suite-like "Mölle" is the album's most ambitious track. It opens with an atmospheric, almost creepy guitar solo before the piano takes over and shifts into a late-night jazz-lounge sort of thing. When Kozelek eventually comes in the song changes again into something resembling dark rock, with quietly distorted guitars and big tom drums softly pounding out a rhythm. Sadly, none of the sections in "Mölle" has the memorable melodies to make its ambition fully pay off.
Drawing of Threes certainly has enough going for it to make it worth a listen. Fans of Kozelek's other bands would do well to check out this album. There's a lot of life in Connolly and Carney's quiet, melody-based songwriting. But for a band that was originally intended to be an instrumental group, this album is quite a shift, and it seems like Desertshore isn't quite sure what it wants to be at this point. The instrumental songs here mostly come off sounding like an afterthought, but Kozelek doesn't seem fully committed to being a member of the band, either. Still, when the melodies are the focus, the songs on Drawing of Threes really come to life.