Kevin Devine - Brother's Blood
Record Label: Favorite Gentlemen
Release Date: April 28, 2009
The lure of a major record label. Whether most musicians admit it or not, it is the ultimate goal. The ample finances, the peripheral luxuries, the increased exposure are just some of the myriad reasons to embrace the corporate powers. But what happens when the label merges with another conglomerate and the album is removed from both the shelves and the public consciousness? This stark reality became the life of Brooklyn's Kevin Devine in the fall of 2007. Only a couple months after releasing the Rob Schnapf-produced Put Your Ghosts To Rest, arguably Devine's most polished and most consistent release to date, he was left on his own. How exactly does one go forward? What does one sing about? These are all the questions that circled in the months that followed.
It appears Devine did two things: First and foremost he went back to basics. On the heels of the demise of his record deal, he toured incessantly and released the 7-inch single Another Bag of Bones, with two songs that were stripped down and brittle, and drew more from his first two releases than that of the full-band bounce of Put Your Ghosts to Rest. Second, he enlisted the help of friends. Jesse Lacey and the Brand New folk started up the record label Procrastinate! Music Traitors and helped re-release Put Your Ghosts To Rest, and shortly after that, Andy Hull and the Manchester Orchestra crew inked Devine to their Favorite Gentlemen label, which birthed the I Could Be With Anyone EP. With a safe haven for his music, Devine went back to work and crafted his fifth album Brother's Blood.
The disc opens up with the hushed vocal of "All of Everything, Erased," which has a delicate feel that easily conjures up the ghost of Elliott Smith. As an album opener it's rather boring and barely motivational, that is until he throws in a vocal bridge in the last minute, sweetly singing "What a joy to be free." It's a simple maneuver but one that saves this song from being a throwaway. It's also a double entendre, as the concept of freedom (be it from the corporate ties that bind or the cradle of democracy) is tackled rather heartily on the remainder of the album.
He makes up for the tepid opening with "Carnival," an ethereal song that haunts and stalks with spacey guitars, a rattling rhythm section and layered vocals. The tone here sounds vastly different from anything in his prior repertoire and clocking in at six minutes it's easily one of his best songs to date, if not his most daring. Confident, ardent and strong it's the perfect tonic to kickstart this album to another level. Drawing on the sonic sheen of "Carnival" is "Time To Burn (Another Bag of Bones)," which pulls many of the same tricks but casts a much different sentiment, as it's aggro-political verses point their fingers at just about everyone, from airborne flu to disappearing glaciers, to occupied countries, military mothers, oil wells, Argentine schoolgirls, torture camps and the "whole damn world turned inside out." The vocal structure is delivered in a quasi reggae/hip-hop front and it's a different angle but one he wears so well. One can argue he should sing like this more often. The searing guitar lick at the 2:40 mark sends this song to aural paradise.
He returns to the acoustic guitar on "Hand of God (When You Breathe...Breathe)," a jangly, acoustic-based song that's backed by campfire percussion and finds him singing, "In the hand of God, there's a cattle prod that keeps shocking us along, until we're flung from roofs without parachutes, filling patches on his lawn." Fifth song and title track "Brother's Blood," is the apex of the disc. Beginning with a Transatlanticism-like guitar opening the song meanders sans-vocal for nearly two minutes before giving way to Devine's laments, "My brother's blood boils in my arms, it balls my fingers into fists, it bubbles, blisters burns my palms, it floods with fury, fights and fits, it's got the good guy in me hiding, it kicks my humble heart around, it's got me fiending for the fire that could finish off this town, oh it's got me good. " And as he sings the song gradually kicks up the ante, the guitars bristling and crackling around him, until the message is surrounded by a swale of angry guitars and frenetic bass as he ferociously grunts about his "sorry heart." The mood settles for the last minute and as a listener one can't help but be moved. If music is supposed to emit emotions and forge a connection, one need look no further than this song. By it's finish, Devine has spent himself both vocally and musically, allowing his manic, spastic fit to convey the very anger of the song's words.
What follows are three quieter numbers, the first "Fever Moon," a subdued, jazzy Van Morrison-like offering with an intimate trumpet and hushed vocals that moves along rather dully but works well because it's so alien; the second being "It's Only Your Life," a conventional yarn that could have easily fit on Split the Country, Split the Streets, or Put Your Ghosts to Rest; and lastly "Murphy's Song, which builds like a campfire gathering and moves like a Kimya Dawson b-side. The latter jaunt finds him singing "I'm not a joiner. I quit every team I've been on," before giving away to thirty seconds of whistling. This hokey, carnival-like bent is thankfully brief and yields to a dark lamentation on death and burials. "I Could Be With Anyone" finds Devine returning to the electric guitar and the more angular, nuanced song structures that were so prominent in the disc's earlier half. The guitars are piercing, driving and furious, which match his yelping vocals in the song's final 90 seconds stride for stride. While it is punchy, it's also a bit of a mess, and easily the album's biggest disappointment.
He attempts to save the album with "Yr. Husband," which finds him singing, "Your husband he drinks like a writer, he writes like a banker, I hope his pens all run dry," as the song coasts along pleasantly and jangly before turning furious and growling. He ends the album with a skeptical, acoustic ballad entitled "Tomorrow's Just Too Late," that finds him rekindling his trademark form, and doubting spirituality, "I'm not a man of faith, no gospel oak for me. But you wear a crucifix to broadcast your beliefs, and the God I've read about, can't go where he's not asked to go."
As a work of art, Brother's Blood is incendiary. In eleven tracks, Devine manages to conjure up anger, doubt spirituality, navigate placidity, challenge policies, contemplate death, and most importantly, consume himself inside his music. A thoroughly evolved album, the disc goes places one never thought he'd go and like a chameleon finds his sonic palette transformed, well-adjusted and reinvigorated. Like most works of art, it is not perfect. The main flaw lies in the herky-jerky rhythm of the tracklisting, which segues from electric to acoustic and changes tone from hyperkinetic to cerebral in a way that's slightly awkward and skewed. However, it's importance should not be muddled by such a trivial gripe. In an era when music has become cookie-cutter and formulaic, it's refreshing to have an artist redefine himself while still staying true to his craft.
Ever the verbose wordsmith and always teeming with hostility, passion and acumen, Devine has crafted an album that should sit encased in glass for years to come. He has refined his vision and is more pointed and more critical than ever before. His hyper-literate lyrics have been nothing short of revelatory for the last few years and he continues to prove that again here. Each line snags the attention and brims with empathy, concern, rage and attention to detail that few others possess. At points the songs move like delirious pastoral poetry and at other times like manic fits of violence. Brother's Blood is transcendent and hypnotic and captures the imagination in ways other singer/songwriters don't. There's a vigor and a charisma at work that is too hard to pass up. Which leads one to surmise, perhaps he should get dropped from major labels more often.