Buck Meek is best known as the guitarist of the brilliant alternative band Big Thief. He plays beautifully and helps elevate the group’s output into something wonderful and unique. Meek also has three studio records. The latest has just been released. His solo work is different than his Big Thief efforts. The songs are more narrative, direct, and, simultaneously, a bit more raw. The new record is rarely pretty by conventional standards.
Haunted Mountain harnesses lo-fi standards to showcase the record’s truthfulness. Its rawness suggests that its contents are honest. The music can be off-key on purpose, and Meek’s vocals can crack mid-note to show the inherent disconnect between us and the world in which we live. Meek embraces the natural world and its disorder. He roots much of the material in his deep appreciation of the wild area around his hometown of Wimberley, Texas. He and his band, Adam Brisbin (guitar), Austin Vaughn (drums), Mat Davidson (pedal steel), Ken Woodward (bass), and Buck’s brother, Dylan Meek (piano and synths), recorded the album in the nearby Franklin Mountains.
Meek co-wrote five of the 11 cuts with his Texas compadre, Jolie Holland, including the title tune. Holland wrote the first two verses about Mt. Shasta (California), but Meek finished it in Texas. The song works because of the shared love of the outdoor world and the notion that there is something special about being in one’s place. The sentiments can be a bit schmaltzy—a side effect of trying to be sincere. However, one can never look back without a certain amount of nostalgia creeping in.
The most successful tracks are the least serious. The raucous “Undae Dunes” tells of a young teen’s game of Spin the Bottle being interrupted by an alien invasion. He still remembers the girl and the rocket ships going off in his mind during the kiss. There’s something comically sweet about the whole thing as the tale is told over the clatter of the instruments. The clumsiness of teen love is part of its charm.
On the quieter side is “Lullabies”, which features just Meek with an acoustic guitar for the first two minutes plus. Meek purposely sings with a fragile edge and doesn’t always hit the right note. That’s meant to be charming or at least realistic, but it detracts from the listening experience. Meek doesn’t have much to say in the song, and its best moments are when he sings the first verse of the old chestnut “You Are My Sunshine”.
The documentary filmmakers behind the recent movie Lost Angel: The Genius of Judee Sill asked Meek to set some of the legendary folksinger Judee Sill’s unreleased lyrics to music. Meek was given Sill’s journals and selected to put her last entry to a tune. “The Rainbow” has a simple melody to go with the somewhat cliched poetic concerns (i.e., rainbows are like dreams, and vice versa). Meek’s contribution doesn’t transform the words into something more transcendent but does match the topic.
The imperfect sound quality of the recording will limit the audience for Haunted Mountain. The weirdness alluded to in the title seems not to be due to haunting but from showing what’s behind the curtain of sound production. Reality is much scarier than special effects. The music has its charms thanks in part to its purposeful flaws. It also deters one from paying too much attention.