Singer-songwriter Paul Duncan was born in East Texas, spent time in Atlanta, and currently resides in Brooklyn; he draws upon an array of instruments and studio techniques in his recordings as diverse as the list of places he’s called home. On Duncan’s previous outing for Hometapes, 2005’s Be Careful What You Call Home, he masterfully wove together acoustic instruments and electronic manipulations, creating a delightful collection of alt-folk songs. Despite a conglomeration of sounds that usually don’t easily gel together, Be Careful inhabited an appealing sound world that seemed entirely organic.
For his latest CD, Above the Trees, Duncan traveled to Chicago to work with engineer Tim Iselar at Sona EMS studios. He also employed a number of A-list indie musicians, taking special advantage of talents local to the Windy City; in particular, pedal steel player Ken Champion (Jim O’Rourke), Doug McCombs (Tortoise), drummer Chris Bear (Grizzly Bear), cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (Lightbox Orchestra), violinist Nate Swanson, clarinetist Nate Lapine (Smog), and trumpeter Josh Berman (Exploding Star Orchestra). The mélange of instruments and playing styles fits in well with Duncan’s documented eclecticism.
It is Champion in particular who seems to serve as muse to Duncan on Above the Trees. The twangy presence of pedal steel populates and indeed propels a number of arrangements on the CD. If this gives a more country feel to the proceedings than Duncan’s previous recordings, it does nothing to dilute the profound counterbalance of spacey rock which also permeates Above the Trees. On “Red Eagle”, Duncan’s lyrical singing spins amid pedal steel harmonies and violin and cello counter-melodies: a winning combination. “The Fire” is an alt-country ambler. Duncan’s understated crooning is ably abetted by Champion’s dulcet-toned filigrees and a sensitive rhythm section comprised of McCombs, Bear, and drummer Joe Stickney; meanwhile, the arrangement is also invaded by a veritable chamber ensemble: clarinet, violin, cello, and trumpet. The overall effect is a kaleidoscope of colors that blurs the song around its edges but does nothing to dilute the inexorable loveliness of its tune.
As on Be Careful What You Call Home, Duncan retains a penchant for electronics, the more homespun and dirty around the edges, the better. Adam Heathcott’s computer and modular synth contributions add a watercolor impressionism to “The Lake, Pt. 2”, moving it from a straightforward, Nick Drake-inspired ballad to a more variegated offering. Heathcott’s electronics and David Daniell’s drones and hard-rocking rhythm guitar shape the spooky atmosphere of “Parasail”; this song also contains fetching chorused vocal overdubs from Duncan which add to its ghostly ambience.
“High in the Morning” is the song most likely to be lastingly memorable and it embodies all of the overarching tendencies Duncan explores here. Instead of Champion, Daniell and Adam Wills supply the song’s most overtly countrified elements, with caterwauling guitar solos that wouldn’t be out of place on a seventies southern rock album. Against this typhoon of energy, Duncan’s singing poses itself as gently immovable, eminently tuneful, and inexorably supple; credit is due to backing vocalist Jess Stover, who harmonizes beautifully. Rather than present this as a straight-up country rocker, Duncan mixes up the brew with strings from Swanson and Lonberg-Holm. The overall impression is musically engaging, but the disparate energies and instrumental timbres at work create an off-kilter sensibility.
While it is just this off-kilter nature that will be treasured by some listeners — those who long for the kind of subtlety that Duncan and but a small cadre of other artists can provide — it can sometimes be the CD’s Achilles’ heel. Duncan has created a rarefied sound on his recordings, but he’s also spent so much of his effort cultivating this sound that he occasionally forgets to go for the knockout punch in his songs. You can almost taste sublime victory at so many points on this album; yet the balancing act of eclecticism seems to leave it just beyond Duncan’s grasp. While Above the Trees is a fine recording, it leaves one wanting a bit more directness, a sense of commitment that transcends the ineffably beguiling arrangements and drives the song’s narrative home. Fortunately, it’s still early in Duncan’s career, and there are few artists with more promise currently active. Above the Trees may not be an arrival point, but it’s a lovely step along the journey.