Small Sur – We Live in Houses Made of Wood (Tender Loving Empire)

Don’t miss Small Sur’s CD release show Aug. 9 @ 2640 Space, and their show at the Talking Head Aug. 30 with Duchess and the Duke.

With this first release on Tender Loving Empire, Bob Keal, ringleader for the motley crew of wilderness folksters Small Sur including one familiar face Andy Abelow, banks on a hypothesis…one he clearly bases on years of tradition and strength in circles of bluegrass, country and the many sounds of folk in rural Americana. He is betting that there is a well of universal memories, vivid images ingrained in our social subconscious, just waiting to be unleashed…triggered by a steady, knowing hand.

Here’s the good news: he is completely right.

After previewing a few tracks from this debut album, We Live in Houses Made of Wood, the most striking thing was the clarity of the musical vision. Stylistically, Small Sur goes for it, losing themselves in folk, more concerned with quality and authenticity, rather than the overuse of experimentation and boundary-pushing concepts that lately has felt almost crushing in its weight. More often than not in recent years, merit is given almost by default to someone haphazardly fusing things together. Woe to the person who tries to distill and purify something down to its essence, and then honing it to near-perfection.

But Small Sur ignores this and heads straight for the woods, never looking back. With an astoundingly assured and deliberate pacing that might seem slow if the music wasn’t so rich and warm, this album flies in the face of the hustle-and-bustle world. It compels you to lay back, reflect and lose yourself in some of the most vital aural escapism in recent years. Every one of these songs recalls a distinct memory or image, culled either from your own personal experience or a more universal wall of images and experiences with nature and wilderness.

In each song, every musical voice, both instrumental and vocal, falls on top of each other as if layers of sediment gradually depositing in a river. Each layer with its own cadence, its own pace, its own distinctive characteristics. Eventually, as each song progresses, the layers form a tightly compact whole, one that you could never imagine existing again as so many distinct parts.

The mournful dirge “Roots,” with Keal’s soothing baritone vocal drone, is one of the best tracks on the album, really shows off the group’s stylistic mastery at creating a stirring, haunting narrative and localizing it to a distant, rural town. “I love the sun” is a brief and welcome burst of unbridled and immediate joy, a brilliant contrast to the more down-beat and nostalgic tone of the majority of the album. The fondly reminiscent and yearning “Sand dollar” drops you right on a sunset beach, twinkling, nimble banjo lines lapping like sea swells at your toes as you lay back and let the breeze and warmth from the sand caress you. The airy, harmonized vocals of “The wind” are enough to sweep you right off your feet, and you would swear you were standing in a broad open field, nostrils gulping crisp, fresh mountain air.

I can’t recommend this album enough. It is as refreshing as it is genuine, as invigorating as it is relaxing, a vivid and passionate journey into the wilderness, recalling humanity’s deep connection to nature and its beauty.

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MP3: Small Sur – The Wind

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5 Responses to “Small Sur – We Live in Houses Made of Wood (Tender Loving Empire)”

  1. Jeff says:

    Awesome band!

  2. caleb says:

    long live folkstersss. this sounds really great, no lie.

    also, that show is frickin stacked with acoustical goodness. i’ll be in NYC at Griz Bear. =D wish i could do both

  3. Julia says:

    Ooo pretty.

  4. Alex Mudge says:

    “Roots” is such a strong song–lyrically, musically, aesthetically. The guitar solo is a case study in the hauntingly effective use of restraint, then that emotional outpouring/explosion when it peaks.

    The album is a bit homogenized, BUT this is a good thing. After all there are many ways to fail at an album, but only so many ways to succeed. The album is in sharp contrast to the eclecticism and derivative styles of others.

    Goddamn!!! Bob and crew kill it on this one, no other way to put it. I can’t gush articulately enough to describe how highly I think of this album.

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