Paul Duncan

Above the Trees

(Home Tapes; 2007)

By Christopher Alexander | 18 May 2007

I think my contrarian nature has completely gotten the better of me recently. Either that, or I've been cultivating the sense of being hard to impress for its own sake. Anytime I see the word "Brooklyn" or--God help me--"Williamsburg," I become a caricature. The nose upturns, the chin lifts, the shoulders cross. If the eyes aren't glazed, then they roll. I am ridiculous, and I invite you to ridicule me. Williamsburg hasn't done anything to me; so what if it's peopled by a spate of post-collegiate white bohemians, clothed in outdated outfits from Goodwill and with a taste for Neutral Milk Hotel? I dress in thrift store clothes, I like Neutral Milk Hotel, I go to shows at the Warsaw. What's wrong with me?

Who knows. But it's terrible to think all of that self-imposed criteria might cause me to resist the many charms of an album like Above the Trees. It's now at the point where I won't even plop the thing into the changer (or drag the file into Winamp). Paul Duncan lives in Brooklyn? I've heard this before I even press play. Let me guess: a delicate, whispery, vaguely folk influenced record with sad lyrics? Sounds a bit like Bonnie "Prince" Billy crossed with, I don't know, Gordon Lightfoot? With toy instruments perhaps? Maybe a crudely hand drawn cover?I think my contrarian nature has completely gotten the better of me recently. Either that, or I've been cultivating the sense of being hard to impress for its own sake. Anytime I see the word "Brooklyn" or--God help me--"Williamsburg," I become a caricature. The nose upturns, the chin lifts, the shoulders cross. If the eyes aren't glazed, then they roll. I am ridiculous, and I invite you to ridicule me. Williamsburg hasn't done anything to me; so what if it's peopled by a spate of post-collegiate white bohemians, clothed in outdated outfits from Goodwill and with a taste for Neutral Milk Hotel? I dress in thrift store clothes, I like Neutral Milk Hotel, I go to shows at the Warsaw. What's wrong with me?

Who knows. But it's terrible to think all of that self-imposed criteria might cause me to resist the many charms of an album like Above the Trees. It's now at the point where I won't even plop the thing into the changer (or drag the file into Winamp). Paul Duncan lives in Brooklyn? I've heard this before I even press play. Let me guess: a delicate, whispery, vaguely folk influenced record with sad lyrics? Sounds a bit like Bonnie "Prince" Billy crossed with, I don't know, Gordon Lightfoot? With toy instruments perhaps? Maybe a crudely hand drawn cover?

No way. The musical math is there: portions of "Red Eagle," "The Fire," and "High in the Morning" strike me as if "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was reimagined to fit in the running order of Ease Down the Road (2003). (I should mention that I mean that as a high compliment; whether my Canadian colleagues and readers agree is an open question.) The music Duncan makes, though, is solid. Long on hooks and short on whimsical gimmickry, Above the Trees is a beautifully arranged melding of Will Oldham's ecstasy and air-tight classic folk-pop. It also helps that his band is downright muscular; the pedal steel of Ken Champion (who's worked with Jim O'Rourke) is especially impressive and vibrant throughout, while Fred Lonberg-Holm's cello gives much needed depth and atmosphere. This music is alive, and Duncan's lyrics, dense with starkly romantic images of nature and wildlife, reflect that. Lovers awake, birds fly, lakes attack shores, and suns rise; everything stirs.

I'll admit it: my kneejerk reaction to Paul Duncan was way off. No one should pass on this record because of how easily descriptions can mislead you to think, as I had, "oh great, here we go again, another sad folkie...." Truth is, Above the Trees is a great record; it's just my loss for coming so late to the party.