The academic year of 1995-1996 figures prominently in my personal history with music. As a college freshman that fall, I joined the staff of WPLS and began hosting my first radio show. Weeks later, I attended my first eighteen-and-over concert: Superchunk at Be Here Now in Asheville, NC. At the end of my freshman year, my friend Simms invited me up to Asheville to see a folk concert. Dar Williams was the headliner at Be Here Now that night, but I came away with a strong impression of the opening act, a big, shambly guy who played a stirring, stripped down cover of Pavement’s “Here.” About a decade later, as I was delving into the furrowed beauty of Richard Buckner’s Dents and Shells, I realized that he was that big, shambly guy and I experienced the kind of epiphany that comes from a life of listening to music you love.
Richard Buckner’s eighth album and his second on Merge Records, Dents and Shells, showcases his distinctive take on the singer-songwriter tradition and serves as a great introduction to this hard-working, underrated artist. Throughout the album, Buckner’s weathered, intimate voice combines with the instrumentation of the era’s alt-country sound, but the result hews closely enough to indie rock that it still feels at home on Merge. “A Chance Counsel” kicks off the album as a strummed acoustic guitar opens into a mid-tempo arrangement and Buckner drops us into the middle of one of his signature highly detailed, small-scale narratives. Blending the sweetness of nostalgia with the bitterness of regret, Buckner sets the album’s themes of missed opportunities, loss, and survival. Coalescing out of a soft, repeated piano figure, “Her” balances a haunting sense of melancholy with a resigned acceptance of the here and now. Offering up the album’s strongest moment, “Her” blossoms into a poignant expression of emotional reckoning nuanced with swells of fiddle and tinges of pedal steel guitar. Later in the album, “Rafters” breaks into a swift tempo while Buckner gives us just enough hints to know he’s singing about the kind of night we all remember when things change forever. The strength of Buckner’s delivery and the lack of resolution in his lyrics in “Rafters” signal a respect for his audience’s intelligence that feels rare and refreshing for the genre and timeframe. “As the Waves Will Always Roll” closes out the album on a somber, yet inspiring note as a cymbal flourish gives way to a brooding organ performance and thunderous crashes of percussion. This musical backdrop slyly offsets Buckner’s nearly hushed voice and although the song rises to almost epic proportions it still feels grounded, immediate, and true like all Buckner’s best songs.
In the spring of 2014, I had a unique opportunity to reflect on my then twenty-year-long relationship with Merge Records, the independent record label founded by two members of one of my favorite bands, Superchunk. That April, I saw Arcade Fire play the Pepsi Center in Denver as part of their Reflektor World Tour, easily the biggest concert by a Merge Records band I’ve witnessed. The next month, I traveled back to my hometown of Greenville, SC and attended the most intimate concert I’ve seen by a Merge Records artist, a house show featuring Richard Buckner hosted by my friend and former record store co-worker, Brian. Sitting in Brian’s living room, I once again felt drawn into Buckner’s warmth, intensity, and vulnerability. Hearing Buckner perform songs from this album with him sitting just a few feet from me, time fell away as I felt anchored by music’s ability to transcend all that can so easily consume and distract us.
- John Parsell