Damon McMahon has spent much of his life both physically and spiritually adrift, vacillating between urban enticements and rural retreats. Born in Philly, but raised in the sticks of Connecticut, he would settle in New York in the early 2000s just in time for his former band, Inouk, to enjoy its 15 pixels of fame during the post-Clap Your Hands Say Yeah blog rush. A subsequent failed attempt to establish himself as an Astralwerks-backed singer-songwriter would prompt McMahon to hole himself up in a Catskills cabin to record his wilfully primitive debut as Amen Dunes, before embarking upon an extended self-exile to China. But since returning stateside around the start of this decade, McMahon has increasingly channeled his sense of wanderlust into his music, breaking down his traditional folk-rock roots to open up more celestial spaces, and amassing an ever-expanding circle of collaborators like a backpacker making new friends at a hostel lounge.
For his 2014 triumph, Love, he decamped to Montreal and ensconced himself in the Godspeed You! Black Emperor inner circle to produce his most fully realized, emotionally resonant work to date. In interviews, McMahon often cited Astral Weeks and Pharoah Sanders’ turn-of-the-’70s odysseys as inspirations for the album’s spiritually infused sprawl, but Love’s seemingly loose aesthetic did not come without much tinkering and second-guessing. (The album reportedly took five studios and over a year to complete.) The new Cowboy Worship EP sheds light on McMahon’s meticulous methodology: Four of its six tracks are reprises of Love songs, and though the differences between these versions and the official ones are sometimes barely perceptible, they serve as testaments to McMahon’s determination to get the vibe just right.
In fact, the rendition of “I Know Myself” that opens the EP is identical to the one that appears on Love, its gradual transformation from solitary strummer to communal hymn serving as a microcosm of Amen Dunes’ own creative evolution. However, this time McMahon lets the tape roll past the final chord, and after he confidently declares “that’s the one, I think,” we hear a chintzy electronic-doorbell chime, the sort of modern dollar-store distraction that Amen Dunes’ music seems designed to transport us away from. “Woah, perfect timing,” McMahon chuckles as drummer Parker Kindred enters the studio, but in that seemingly frivolous exchange, a certain maxim of recording is reinforced. A perfect take ultimately requires the serendipitous absence of external distractions beyond one’s control; the artist’s actual performance is just one of many stars that have to align.
That said, the first drafts McMahon scrapped along the way to Love’s completion could’ve easily held their own amid the album proper; in lieu of any major structural variations, the early versions heard on Cowboy Worship are more like alternate mixes that accentuate or deemphasize McMahon’s measured use of noise. Love’s raucous, in-the-red climax “I Can’t Dig It” is presented in a more controlled, piano-rolled take (recorded as he first wrote it in China), but the quieter performance ultimately serves to amplify the textural strangeness wafting behind McMahon’s anthemic exclamations. And while a primordial “Green Eyes” lacks the haunting Elias Rønnenfelt guest vocal that imbues the Love version, it’s given a thick coating of molten psychedelic ooze courtesy of Harvey Milk’s Stephen Tanner. (The EP also features a revision of “Lezzy Head” from 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw that dials down the original’s oddball wobble for a more patient, meditative treatment closer in spirit to Love.)
Given the similarities to its source material, Cowboy Worship probably would’ve made more sense as a bonus-disc appendage to Love than a stand-alone release. The EP even closes just as Love does, with the latter’s eight-minute title track (the apotheosis of McMahon’s effort to unite singer-songwriter tradition with avant-jazz exploration), and while the Cowboy Worship mix gradually brings Colin Stetson and Jen Reimer’s subliminal horn hum to the fore, such subtleties simply reinforce the original’s transportive, out-of-body effect. As such, Cowboy Worship’s most notable feature is also its outlier: a Ben Greenberg-assisted, dueling-acoustic rip through Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”. It’s a tune that’s hardly lacking for covers, of course, and McMahon acknowledges this history by imagining Buckley covering This Mortal Coil’s immortal version of his own song. But Buckley’s conflation of human and earthly nature fits right into Love’s thematic wheelhouse—and, by striking the same balance of ethereal and elemental that defines the music of Amen Dunes, McMahon makes “Siren” his own.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/14VxnKD