Paul Duncan's new album Above the Trees was released by Hometapes on May 1 and since that date I have been listening to it again and again and again. Obsessively. Rich with texture and a trailing narrative, it's the kind of music that you won't get sick of, or rather can't get sick of because it laps over you, envelopes you and lets you live inside of it. And the living is good.
This is Paul's third release, following 2003's To An Ambient Hollywood and 2005's Be Careful What You Call Home, and his first outside of a home studio. Written in a three month period and recorded in just one week with engineer Tim Iseler in Chicago's Soma EMS studio, Above the Trees features a soaring symphony of guitars, violin, cello, drums, clarinet, pedal steel, piano, trumpets, and ghostly synthetic noises creating depth and layers throughout each track.
Often compared to Smog and Bonnie Prince Billie (Will Oldham), Paul's voice levitates and hovers above each orchestral composition, the lyrics forming short stories told with a lexicon focused on natural imagery. Red eagles taking flight, branches being thrown into the fire, lake waters attacking shorelines, and a shepherd being called in from the field make up the characters and scenery drawn upon the eerily sonic sounds, painting images of a dark Thoreauian countryside.
This isn't just good fiction. Born in Texas and schooled in Savannah, GA, the current resident of Brooklyn has true southern roots and an ability to blend them with rock and folk styles to create a distinctive sound that remains authentic. Playing NYC's Mercury Lounge last week, Paul took the stage looking like a down-to-earth guy in corduroys and a blue button down and took swigs of Jim Beam in between songs, sharing his bottle with the crowd. So when he sings lines like "a bird in my belly is singin bout Texas / while my aunt Sue Ellen is sleeping with crosses….I've plenty of keepsakes – not many memories / I've paid for my passage – I'm leaving on Tuesday," on the "The Lake pt.1," the sentiment comes across genuine as his voice softly rises above the pedal steel and B3.
This sentiment is carried throughout the tracks and ties the album together, while the unpredictable musical composition keeps it exciting. On "High in the Morning," he balances between musical interlude and lyrics, growing louder as it goes on, and deeper in depth with the buoyant sounds of the cello. He sings "We walk to the shoreline to the end of its reach / and talk about towns that haunt you and me." On "Red Eagle," a true showcase of Paul's talent and the album's opening track, the listener is amazed once again by the intensity of the play between soft and light sounds.
Above the Trees is truly the kind of album that you listen to on repeat, tell friends about repeatedly and check back with them more than once to make sure they have actually listened to at least one song. You may even resort to putting your phone to your speakers and making them listen to it, because you know in the end they will thank you.