The Phantom Tollbooth
December 1998 Pick of the Month

Artist: Richard Buckner
Label: MCA
Time: 37:04 / 16 tracks

"Who is Richard Buckner?" If you know, you're among the fortunate. If you've been in the dark as I have, you may be surprised to learn that Buckner is an extraordinarily gifted singer-songwriter. With talent this hefty, he must have been under a pretty large rock to be obscured from the limelight for so long.

As near as I've been able to piece together, His story goes something like this: young man from North California releases an album called Bloomed to critical acclaim; tours the country; relationship with his wife deteriorates; releases another album called Devotion + Doubt about his divorce to even more critical acclaim; packs up his belongings into a storage facility; throws 300 CDs and his gear into his truck; tours the country some more; plays more gigs; wrestles more ghosts, and, bringing us up to the present: releases the slightly more upbeat Since. Resumes tour. He's a nomad; a true traveling troubadour in the most traditional sense. His music is also well worth digging through the CD bins to uncover.

In a slight departure from earlier work, Since is a rock and roll record that is either countrified alternative or alterna-country depending on your preference. Fans of No Depression/Alt-Country artists like Son Volt, Whiskey Town, Buddy Miller, and the Vigilantes of Love will find another kinsmen here, but aficionados of bands as wide ranging as the Counting Crows to Peter Himmelman, R. E. M. to Phish and the Alman Brothers should also pay their respects. Listening to Buckner's works conjures a wealth of folk traditions, making him the perfect traveling companion to Bruce Cockburn's earlier or Mark Heard's later work. There are finger-picked acoustic guitar melodies aplenty, and the occasional slide-guitar or mandolin licks in all the right places. As part of the rising movement of musicians favoring traditional American folk melodies, Buckner draws a comparison to other modern music pioneers borrowing from the good ol' stuff like Sixteen Horsepower have done. Whereas 16HP are a sort of gothic country, Buckner is more akin to emo-country (to coin a new phrase). His music can be dark, but it never screams. The quiet intensity of his nearly whispered voice, both at its brooding lows and crooning highs, is hauntingly compelling and emotionally urgent--not to mention unique.

The real strength of Since is in the superbly executed songwriting. At only 37 minutes, its 16 songs are short and not one of them is dismissible. The diverse tempos and variations around a unified sound contribute to an album that is fast-paced and devoid of dull moments. The music ranges from hushed and sparse to thick and rocking, sometimes combining a full band to great effect, other times merely relying on a pair of guitars. A list of guest musicians from Syd Straw to David Grubbs reads like a Who's Who of not well known but respected musicians from alt-rock and roots-rock bands. The resulting musicianship is carefully constructed yet seemingly reckless.

At all times it is the raw visceral emotion of Buckner's stories that most clearly rings out.

 So, you just pour your poor self out and milk your spirit down
 But, what're'ya gonna do in another year or two
 But groove a new rut in another town?
 Raze. Raze.
 Ah, the daylights barely holding.
 What'd'ya say we head-on down the hill?
 We'll light up the sky w/ the look in our eyes
 And a lifetime left to kill.
Ascertaining Buckner's lyrical inspirations is easier than determining the precise nature of each song. The album is full of tales from his travels, recounting lost loves, and sordid life disappointments, written from the greasy windows of Econolodges along the dusty roads linking this gig to that. Perfectly poetic, the lyrics create the intended moods and paint impassioned pictures more often than they tell coherent, fully realized tales. He sometimes uses fragmented or disjointed phrases but nonetheless, his journey has been a fascinating one, accurately captured in his heartbroken songs filled with images of angels, flickers of candles, falling rain, wisps of smoke and a world of shadows. As gloomy as he can sound, there are sublime threads of hope that keep his songs from wallowing in the wastelands of mere depression. Each song draws you along Buckner's road. Like a hitchhiker grateful for a seat in his pick-up, you'll soon be heading toward a town on the horizon full of promise and rest.
 Our August moon was hard this time--
 One deep mother of a valley through the night.
 I wonder if I'd missed that scene,
 Where we'd be left to lie?
 But I stumbled into grace & speed, blinked, & it was over me.
Nothing about this release is typical, right on down to the CD case which is a tri-fold cardboard construction with an oddly laid-out booklet. This is also very clearly a case of not being able to judge a CD by its photos. Buckner looks positively miserable, like some kind of totally deranged slacker with psychotic tendencies. His music suggests otherwise, and comes recommended if you want something challenging, beautiful and moody.

By Steven Stuart Baldwin (11/5/98)

While listening to this album, it is very easy to get the impression that Richard Buckner would be producing music whether or not he was able to record it. It's in his blood. The music is raw and unpretentious, majoring on sounds, but with obvious influences from emo and indie-rock. The opening track, for example, is a somewhat turbulent roots-rock emo piece which is interesting in its way, but is probably the album's weakest number.

Buckner's vocals have a slight country lilt to them, which are not quite as strong as Jay Farrar's (Son Volt) but in the same area. His vocals aren't quite as thick as Farrar's, either, and there is a fragility to them which suits the songs well. The vocals are accompanied by a variety of instruments, from solo guitar, to mandolin and pedal steel, to an appearance from a Moog synthesizer. The arrangements are kept tastefully sparse for the majority but can certainly pack a punch where necessary. "Jewelbomb" reminded me of some of the tracks on the latest Vigilantes of Love release.

Buckner's spirituality is difficult to pin down as his songs are more concerned with living life than expressing absolute beliefs. Spirituality is definitely of interest to Buckner, however, and on a track like "Faithful Shooter" it is difficult to know whether his words use spiritual imagery to talk about human relationships, or human relationships as a metaphor for spiritual explorations.

A number of the tracks are very short, which only shows that each song has been carefully crafted and refrains from superfluous repeated lyrics and instrumental breaks. Amidst the world-weary vocals lie nuggets of hope, and some honest, earthy music.

By James Stewart  (11/14/1998)