Short Cuts

-- John Lewis

Richard Buckner
(MCA Records)

Richard Buckner is a singer-songwriter who still believes in plain, majestic songs. Part of the alternacountry, Americana or y'allternative genre, he is too country to be rock, too literate to be country, aligning himself with artists like Son Volt, Giant Sand, and Victoria Williams. With a low, rough-hewn voice and minimal ornamentation beyond drums, bass, piano, voice, and guitar, he sings with confidence and a touch of world-weary sadness. On his third album, characters and tales emerge from the shadows then disappear again. Hinting at bittersweet romances and broken dreams with his sober tone, Buckner takes listeners to dark places and brings them back a little wiser. After all, simple arrangements don't necessarily reflect simple emotions.

With the entire record clocking in under 40 minutes, the 16 songs barely have time to get out before it's time to move on. Urgent but not hurried, the songs are succinct sentences that suggest more in what they don't say than in what they do. Like honeymoon snapshots from a broken marriage, part of the beauty of the songs stems from their brevity and from the knowledge that happiness exists, but it can be just as fleeting as these songs.

The dirty guitars, gritted-teeth singing, and wide-open drumming of the two-minute opener, "Believer," sets the tone for the anguish and longing featured throughout the album. The aptly titled "Brief & Boundless" churns with the turmoil and intensity of Born to Run-era Springsteen with pedal steel and one-note piano accents. In 90 seconds he sums up a life spent hiding from trouble, nailing the emotions without judging the participant.

At just over three minutes, the highlight of the record, "Lucky Buzz," shows what Buckner can do when he takes his time. Augmented with violin and sleigh bells, it begins with a simply strummed guitar, slowly picking up steam until a quick, Neil Young kind of guitar solo burns out of control. The song pauses, resetting itself as Buckner repeats "But we're the lucky ones" as if trying to convince himself, and then it drifts off slowly.

Since is a brilliant, if often difficult, record in which even the songs he seems to toss off quickly are mesmerizing. The frustrating part is imagining what could have been possible if all of the songs were given the same treatment as "Lucky Buzz."

-- David Simutis

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