By stretching outside of singer/songwriter constraints, Weaver might finally be finding his voice.
Vocally, Ben Weaver's almost a dead ringer for Richard Buckner. Possessing a deep, resonant voice, Weaver always sounds like he's coming out of some dark place, even when he's singing about bright topics. Unlike Buckner's recent work, though, Weaver doesn't strive to be increasingly inaccessible. Weaver's poetic, sure, but it's a plainspoken poetry full of images from nature, backyards, and around the house.
In the past, that unassuming quality has worked both for and against Weaver, making for some gripping songs at the same time it resulted in some songs that may have stayed too subtle or constrained by typical singer/songwriter constraints. In short, a few too many forgettable songs along with the masterpieces. With, The Ax in the Oak, he leaves all that behind. Weaver increases the electronic flourishes, left-of-center percussion, and minor effects that he and Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron and Wine) introduced to Weaver's previous effort, Paper Sky. "White Snow", amidst references to Wallace Stevens, is a mix of dirty chords and strings as Weaver sings, "You get one wish for each dot on the junebug's wing / And there's only one dot on the one I'm holding... I'm not gonna waste it on you". "Red Red Fox" finds Weaver's vocals emerging from a swirl of instrumentation, while the delicate acoustic arrangement of "Dead Bird" kicks into some mechanized percussion towards the end. The disc's lone instrumental, "Said in Stones", comes across a bit like an interlude from the Cure. "Hey Ray" (along with "Hawks and Crows" a tribute to late writer Larry Brown) begins with a slightly treated banjo melody that's taken up by a piano as it eases into a midtempo lope.
This new approach doesn't always work. The plinky, slightly chintzy percussion in "Pretty Girl", for example, returns us to the image of Weaver as a one-man show, laying down a demo in his living room. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but The Ax in the Oak, on the whole, is much more expansive and textured than that. In other spots scattered across the record, the beats and percussion draw attention to themselves rather than serving the song.
The main benefit of Weaver and Deck's open-minded approach is the tension generated within many of the songs between Weaver's traditional sound and the colors brought in by this new instrumentation. In particular, the cello and strings of Julia Kent (utilized in a way reminiscent of Alejandro Escovedo's masterful use of strings) are in constant tug-of-war with the album's far less organic-sounding percussion.
All of this might make The Ax in the Oak sound like a stylistic exercise that's better in theory than in practice, but the album's actually one of Weaver's most accessible efforts so far. The expected shadows still weave in and out of his songs, but this time around, it doesn't feel like the light is closing in and contracting to a faint pinpoint. Ironically, for all of the new stuff Weaver's trying, Ax in the Oak doesn't seem like as much of a niche record as his more traditional American efforts.