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Review: John Davey's Living is Trying
Posted October 20, 2014 by Taylor Peters
WRITTEN BY
Taylor Peters
ON
October 20, 2014

 

Listen to me right now while I talk about John Davey's latest release on Dilated Time--it's called Living is Trying--because it is not often I am this over-the-moon about a record where a guy with an acoustic guitar fronts a folk-rock band and I feel like that ought to lend my fervor a little weight. This is a great record. You should listen to it. Listen to it on you porch this fall if you can. It'll soften the teeth of the oncoming cold. (Check out, as well, 2012's In a Whelming Tide which is embedded below).

 

 

Some songs, I think, can be judged in part simply on how long they stay stuck in our heads. Sometimes we can just set aside music critic conventions and hyper-specific number ratings and step inside the world-space of a pop song that won't let you back out. This is where I've been for the last several weeks with "Spent" by John Davey, which is just one song from an album of songs that more or less equally vy for dominance in the part of my brain that makes me the type of person who is nearly always singing some song quietly to myself. The descending progression that turns the chorus on "Spent" around and around hits me gut-level every time.

 

 

Part of this is because of the way Davey folds himself into chord progressions and song structures that feel comfortable as an old shirt. Three (III) chords get that major third lift that Leonard Cohen is often fond of; four (IV) chords drop to a minor third to resolve back to the tonic in a way that I guarantee even if you don't know any music theory at all you'd start hearing everywhere if I showed you what I mean. With reasonable ears and a few years of guitar under your belt you can probably pick out a lot of the progressions just by listening.

 

This is not--let me stress--a knock of any kind. Along with all these progressions is Davey's remarkable sense of melody; his capacity to whittle down lines so they fit into the cracks of the chords is for me, at the heart of what I like so much about Living is Trying . The way the climbing quiet accompaniment of "Ghost Notes" sits with Davey scraping the top of his range in the choruses, or the way he stretches out the line "Keep on coming and going with the tide" at the end of album closer "Steady Wabash Amble," it's all just so perfectly balanced. 

 

 

I saw Davey play at Luna a few weeks ago at the release in-store for the album. He played by himself with an acoustic guitar and it was lovely, lovely to the extent that it would be hard to fault him for taking the easy way on this album and just dropping it as a solo acoustic deal. That's not what he did though, and part of the strength of Living is Trying is its arrangements. "Madison" literally trucks along, sounding the way cornfields look when you're driving northbound on 65. The band almost sneaks in on "Cruel to Be Kind," before leaning forward the whole way for plangent explosion that then empties out again as soon as it's filled. At every turn, these songs are served by thoughtful instrumentation that does, somehow, precisely what it needs to do. 

 

And the album's title hits "command U" on the whole affair. The cynical me, the one that sits at my work desk pre-manufacturing complaints about imagined tasks I might have to one day do before I can get on to the things I actually want to be doing is substantially more inclined to say "living is dying" most of the time, and that's crucial because this is a thoroughly un-cynical record. No, not pollyanna-ish or in any way oppressively or unduly positive, but, un-cynical. The tunnels Davey looks down all have light at the end of them, I mean. There may be ache at the center of a lot of these songs, but above all, there is a lived-in, forward-looking feeling that I do not want to stop hearing. 

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