There is a time and a place for everything – a time to get up and dance, and a time to slow down, to listen and go inward. Tones, the sophomore album from Small Sur, provides that downtempo vibe we all need every now and then. It is slowcore folk in its finest form; it slows the heartbeat, but warms the heart.
Small Sur, a Baltimore trio, will release Tones on June 28. The three members, Bob Keal (vocals and guitar), Austin Stahl (drums) and Andy Abelow (guitar and sax) invited a few talented friends, including Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak, to add uncluttered beauty to the arrangements, including lap and pedal steel, cello, and bass. All instruments, including vocals, are used sparingly and carefully throughout the 11-song disc.
Images of nature prevail throughout the entirety of the album: sunsets, seasons, trees, sand, water and animals, to name a few. The second song, “The Woods,” is a prime example of Small Sur’s ability to bring forth the natural world in an introspective and beautiful way. I immediately pictured images of Thoreau’s Walden when I heard the first verse:
In the woods/I will find what I seek/Build a home/there beneath the canopy
[audio:http://randomville.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/02-The-Woods.mp3|titles=The Woods]The fourth song, “Three Haiku,” literally follows the Japanese Haiku poetry pattern while a soft alto sax adds to the essence:
Sweet September sun/you are my favorite one/I cannot find you
“How I Love You” is a treasure found midway through the album, and again uses images in nature to describe love. There are subtle, pretty harmonies and some interesting guitar feedback that gets stronger as the song progresses:
How I love you/more than evening/more than sunsets/babies breathing
Keal pays homage to his home state of South Dakota in the ninth song, which wouldn’t be my first choice of states to sing about, but it works with the use of landscape descriptions, childhood memories, and a nice pedal steel and sax accompaniment.
“The Darkest Parts,” the last song, is a bit more melancholy than the rest, as it focuses on the dark side of human nature and exposes the soul. But there is a sense of balance there, too; a yin and yang, dark and light.
Small Sur’s music is perfect for those quiet moments when life winds down. This is music for lying on a California beach while watching the sun set and allowing the natural surroundings dominate the senses. Maybe it’s better suited for relaxing in an Adirondack chair on the porch of a log cabin in the woods. Either way, the beauty of nature found in Tones will make one wish for a serene, natural landscape to do it justice.