Saturday, December 05, 2009

Horse Stories Review

Horse Stories
November, November

Toby Burke, the man behind Horse Stories, was born in Melbourne, spent time living in London, and eventually moved to L.A., where he formed the group. He's also released a solo album, done scores, written fiction, and done art installations. In short, he's a renaissance man, keeping himself busy by dabbling in multiple creative projects. He may be from Australia, but the music he makes has more to do with the country-tinged singer/songwriters of 70s Laurel Canyon than anything coming out of the land of Oz. Maybe that's the influence of his adopted home, L.A.'s hip Silverlake neighborhood. Whatever the reason, November, November, his third album as Horse Stories, is full of gentle alt-country and Americana.

A word of warning: November, November isn't an exciting or dynamic album. Horse Stories concentrates on subtlety and intimacy. The songs are delicate, quiet, and intricately constructed. The tempos are slow, the instrumentation sparse. Burke's beautiful, soulful voice whisps out of the speakers. It's the kind of music that can be richly rewarding, but is also easily overlooked and ignored. He probably gets talked over when he performs live as an opening act.

He does offer some uptempo moments. "To Anyone" is gently rocking, with a driving back beat and organ accompaniment, and "To The Light" has a Western swing. Most of the music is more along the lines of "Telephone Message (November, November)" on which Burke's voice is accompanied only by his guitar, a piano, and a cello. The stripped-down arrangement allows space for his voice to shine. "Oh, though the world must change/Can we be the same?" he asks, before concluding, "Well your letters weren’t enough/So I am on this bus/I hope that your address is still the same." Burke's lyrics, as with his music, are efficient and economical, getting ideas across with the minimum of syllables.

The mood of the album is both melancholy and hopeful. Several songs are about long-distance friends and lovers, and the music is full of both heartache at being apart and the joyful expectation of being reunited. Things might be lonely now, but better days are just around the corner. It's similar in both sound and mood to Aimee Mann's work, but Burke is optimistic where Mann is clinically depressed.

It took about five listens for November, November to really click for me. The first few times it seemed too subdued, too slow, and frankly a little boring. Finally I got it, and I was able to appreciate the sparing use of piano, the gentle tones of the french horn, and the way his voice and lyrics create a mood. You need to spend time with November, November to truly appreciate it, but it is well worth the effort.

The album will get a full release in January. In the meantime, you can pick up the vinyl here or check out the artist's website.

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