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The Painted Word

RICHARD BUCKNERThe Hill (OvercoatConvent)

The Ian Curtis of contemporary singer-songwriters, Townes Van Zandt left behind half a dozen legitimately great songs and a dangerous legacy. Curtis wrote relentlessly -- and well -- about adolescent angst writ monumental; Van Zandt zeroed in on drug addicts, homeless people, the hopeless ”waiting around to die.“ And both artists inspired a whole generation of musicians to fetishize misery. Enter San Franciscan Richard Buckner, here presenting his fourth disc. In many ways, Buckner is unique. Rarely has anyone sounded so forceful while quavering, and his eclectic guitar playing combines lyrical picking with convincing bursts of distortion.

The Hill, a 34-minute folk suite inspired by and drawing lyrics from poet Edgar Lee Masters‘ still-scathing, death-driven 1915 Spoon River Anthology, seems at first glance all too predictable a project for a gloomhound like Buckner. And that makes its stunning success that much more surprising. In these gritty sketches of viciously abusive husbands, murderous drunks and pathetic loners, Buckner finds not salvation or hope but the need for them. His folk songs have always been varied, but they’ve never been more tuneful, despite the absence of choruses, hooks, even track separation (the CD plays as one continuous piece). Quavering less, communicating more, Buckner resists inhabiting his characters; he paints them instead, with appropriate detachment. The music metamorphoses from ballad to field holler to blues stomp to string-drenched weepie without losing its melodicism or undercurrent of defiance.

Buckner‘s ultimate statement seems to be that death, as one mother tells her stillborn child here, may indeed be better than life. But music is better than either, and tragic love songs about love are preferable to those about tragedy.

buckner, Darcy Hemley; mercury, a. sawa; Gregory, vicki berndt


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