S. Carey: All We Grow

Photo: Cameron Wittig

Bon Iver member S. Carey strikes out on his own, to interesting but mixed results.

S. Carey

All We Grow

Label: Jagjaguwar
US Release Date: 2010-08-24
UK Release Date: 2010-08-30

Bon Iver is one of the great indie success stories of the last few years. Everyone knows the tale by now: Justin Vernon experiences a loss, of sorts; retreats to a cabin deep in the woods of Wisconsin; records For Emma, Forever Ago while surrounded by that isolation; the album becomes a sleeper hit, its raw emotion resonating with listeners across the globe. Somewhere in that progression, Sean Carey dips into the story. A huge fan of Bon Iver’s record, Carey listened to it obsessively on MySpace, learning the instrumentation and vocals so well that, when he approached Vernon to ask about joining the touring band, the new folk hero couldn’t refuse him. Now, Carey -- going by S. Carey, professionally -- is releasing his own solo debut, All We Grow.

It’s easy to compare All We Grow to Carey’s patron’s work on For Emma, Forever Ago. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a listener that won’t do so, reflexively. The foundational points of comparison show up on most every track -- breathy vocals, simple and melodic acoustic guitar work, layers of vocal harmonies. Carey, a classically trained percussionist and jazz aficionado, also claims influence from Talk Talk and Steve Reich, artists one probably wouldn’t compare to Bon Iver after the first few spins of For Emma. The question, then: Is All We Grow good enough -- and, perhaps more importantly, distinctive enough -- to prompt Carey to step outside of Vernon’s shadow?

The short answer is, plainly, no. The longer answer is, no, but why insist on the comparison, at all? Carey’s not trying to write Bon Iver songs. He writes from a common palate shared with Vernon, sure, but he seems to concern himself more with atmosphere, more with immersion in sound than with immediate, emotive pop songcraft. Take “We Fell” as a case in point. Carey builds the song around a simple, staccato piano chord progression, ala Bon Iver’s “Babys”. His double-tracked, layered vocals reach into falsetto, Vernon’s trademark territory, as Carey sings For Emma-esque impressionistic lyrics about two lovers falling into the dreamworld only the two of them share. For the song’s first half, it might as well be an Emma b-side.

However, Carey breathes life into the composition as it builds into a satisfying coda, an arpeggiating piano melody blending with classical instrumentation -- is that an oboe? an echo of timpani? -- to beautiful, subtly soaring effect. That aural experience of uplift, that’s the difference between Carey’s emotional operating base and Vernon’s: where Bon Iver’s record showed its author wrestling with the loss of a relationship and trying to find himself in the process, Carey’s writing on All We Grow seems to be an extended love letter to the person Carey has in mind when singing, “If I could run/my fingers through your hair/I would keep my mornings clear” All We Grow has its share of yearning, make no mistake, but there’s no fear of loss here -- just a desire to be close to one’s lover and the confidence that he or she wants that intimacy, as well (“If you doubt that I’ll be there”, Carey sings on “In the Dirt”, “don’t despair/don’t you dare”.).

Contentment can be a tricky emotion to transform into compelling art. For Emma, Forever Ago is almost painfully candid in its grief, at points, but it’s all the more compelling for that openness. While “We Fell” and “In the Dirt” manage to wrest some interesting build-and-release out of their longer track lengths, much of All We Grow relies too heavily on repetition (is that the Reich influence?), both instrumentally and vocally. In other words, its songs too often seem content to remain close to their initial moments once they make it out of the gate. “Mothers” and “Action”, which seem like parts one and two of the same song, fight against that sense of static, introducing some welcome percussion on an album inexplicably lacking in it, considering its songwriter’s roots. Unfortunately, the album’s second half fails to capitalize on the hints at dynamism in those earlier moments. “In the Stream” wants to swell out of its confines, but peters out before it has a chance. The album’s title track spends most of its four-and-a-half minutes trapped in an aimless, almost tuneless haze.

All We Grow is surely the work of a confident, able composer. However, Carey seems to need more time with his ideas, more of a willingness to take risks and break his songs out of their initial molds. We don’t need him to be Bon Iver, and we should thank Vernon for giving Carey’s talents a launching point. Still, it’s hard not to want something more satisfyingly dynamic from All We Grow, something more focused and tight. Carey’s at least likely working on a follow-up, already.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.