Count Me In On This One!

I still remember the first time I heard Richard Buckner. The song was 'Blue and Wonder' and it was on a tape of Richard's 1993 debut album Bloomed that a friend had passed on with a knowing smile and a simple 'listen to this'. I did. It blew me away.

I quickly picked up my own copy of Bloomed and spent more nights than I care to remember sitting in semi-darkness playing it on repeat, sinking myself into its sparse wonders. Richard Buckner sounded for all the world like a genius prophet of strange Country blues; an angel of gloomy introspection standing proud in the gleaming shafts of light brought down from the heavens above. I told anyone who would listen that in the often murky realm of so-called 'alt-country', Richard Buckner was one of the few worth bothering with. Not many listened. Instead they opted for Ryan Adams, which is no sin in itself, just a crying shame that he should be chosen over Buckner.

Maybe Buckner isn't pretty enough (although he does have a kind of Lloyd Cole rugged good looks). Maybe Buckner's songs are too dark and difficult. Whatever.

Richard Buckner has a great back-catalogue already. There's the afore-mentioned Bloomed, reissued a couple of years back by Ryko in collaboration with Slow River. There's 1997's Devotion and Doubt, which features a band made up of the likes of, amongst others, Giant Sand / Calexico collaborators John Convertino, Joey Burns and Howe Gelb and that sounds just as you'd expect it to; dusty , barren, ravaged and raw. There's the following years' brooding Since, recorded with John McEntire and with the memorable line 'I'll watch your flaming figure fly and burn on out at your ruins as Felt belts out a warning of some 'spanish house' I've known'. Such unexpected delights are so important. Both Since and Devotion and Doubt are of course magnificent, although if truth be told, the '96 demos of many songs from both albums that have since appeared on the 'green' CD, are even better.

Then there's the somewhat peculiarity of The Hill. Released in 2000, The Hill is effectively one long track broken into numerous smaller segments, each connecting and weaving within each other. It's all based around Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon Rover Anthology, and I know many Buckner fans were disappointed that as such it wasn't an album full of Richard's own lyrics. Personally I love it, as once again Buckner was joined by Joey Burns and John Convertino to produce one of the most intriguing and beguiling projects I've heard in a long time. The sleeve was great too, with scratchboard works by Buckner's new wife Penny Jo (first wife Eloise has been quite forcibly written out of the Buckner story, being cropped out of the rear sleeve photograph on the reissue of Bloomed, whilst the 'For Eloise' that appeared on the inner sleeve of the original also disappeared on the reissue. She's still specifically there in the lyrics to 'Mud' however, with the closing 'It's just the prettiest little burden, isn't it, El?').

And now there's a new album, Impasse, and EP, Impass-ette to prove anew what some have been saying for the past eight or nine years: Richard Buckner is one the most essential and interesting singer song-writers in existence.

Impasse-ette is a great little showcase. Six tracks, five (or four if you discount the very strange but very good sonic experiment 'It's Still '56') songs, with lead track 'Born Into Giving It Up' appearing twice, once as an 'acoustic' version, and once as the version that also appears on Impasse. 'Born Into Giving It Up' is vintage Buckner, filled with gritty soul and eerie electric menace supported by Penny Jo's reserved drumming, at times just pounding along like Mo Tucker in a Country VU.

Impasse-ette is a terrific taster for the album, and Impasse doesn't disappoint. Its fifteen tracks amount to just over a half hour, and the longest track clocks in at a succinct '3.15'. These things mean a lot to me. Albums aren't meant to be 74, or 80 minutes long. That's just an arbitrary time that technology placed on CDs, but so many seem to feel the need to fill that time and as a result make over-long nonsense. It's a rare beast that can fill a whole CD with greatness (step up and collect your award, Mr Merritt), just as in the days of analogue it was a rare beast who could fill a double album (step up Mr Dylan for Blonde on Blonde and The Velvets for Live 1969). Buckner would probably have no difficulties in getting enough material together to fill an entire CD of course, but he recognises the importance of eloquence in music, as only the best do. As such the songs on Impasse are glorious vignettes; sketches of life drawn in measured broad line not unlike those of Penny Jo's art. They are filled with often impressionistic lyrics that tell some kind of illusive and elusive tales, including what seem to be snatches of conversation, as though the words are plucked from the air in passing. As such they almost flow together; an idea perhaps borrowed from Masters', although if truth be told, Buckner's lyrics have had such an essence since Devotion and Doubt. Musically too, the songs flow together to create a whole. Impasse is not a 'concept' album, not by a long chalk, but Buckner is certainly presenting the album as something that works as a whole, not as an assemblage of unrelated moments. And work it certainly does.

There's no supporting cast on Impasse, aside from Penny Jo on drums. All other instruments are played by Richard, and whilst the old team of Convertino, Burns et al is missed on occasion, he nevertheless does a terrific job. There's of course great guitar work; electric, acoustic, pedal-steel, but in addition there are also snatches of strings (notably on the captivating 'count me in on this one!'), glockenspiels (I think!) and keyboard washes (the haunting minute long album closer 'stutterstep').

In specific places (the aforementioned tracks, and many more besides) and as a whole, Impasse is a subtle triumph. It's further proof for that earlier claim, that Richard Buckner is one the most essential singer song-writers in existence today. I only hope that this time around more people get to recognise it.

© 2002 Alistair Fitchett

Impasse and Impasse-ette are on Overcoat records in the USA
Impasse gets a European release on Fargo records