Amen Dunes Cowboy Worship [EP]

[Sacred Bones; 2015]

Styles: Americana, folk, psych rock
Others: Fleet Foxes, Devendra Banhart, Tim Buckley, The Men, The Rolling Stones

I feel kind of weird listening to Cowboy Worship, after having heard Amen Dunes’s excellent 2014 album, Love. Don’t get me wrong, I love Love. It’s just that some of the songs on Cowboy Worship are on Love, but they’re fuller, and prettier, and it makes me conflicted about which versions I like better.

Last year’s Love was as renowned for its songs’ emotional cores as for their little affectations: Colin Stetson’s resonating sax, the VU-esque violin drone on “Lonely Richard,” the trippy double tracking of “Sixteen.” Unlike some of the versions on Cowboy Worship, the songs on Love worked off of very simple, very well-maintained contrasts, stylish pairings of songcraft and nuance. This EP is interesting as a document of what these songs could have become — a little more fleshed out, a little noisier, a little slower and more grandiose — though there’s not much new being offered to dissuade me from thinking Damon McMahon made the right choices the first time around.

With the first track, the suffixed “I Know Myself” clone, one of two songs on the EP with the subtitle “Montreal,” the EP begins curiously — it’s the same mix of the song on Love, save a few seconds of studio chatter left in after the last note. Seems at first pointless to include it, but in the great music nerd canon, it calls to the same voyeuristic pleasure of the “holy shit!” at the end of “Oh Comely,” one of those unique anomalies of a recording that makes it all the more rare and unrepeatable.

Meanwhile, McMahon’s rendering of (This Mortal Coil’s take on) Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren” is the formal centerpiece to the whole EP, perplexing with starry guitar and McMahon’s voice front and center. A cover of a cover, the track goes to show how anything put through McMahon’s bare, quivering aesthetic takes on a life of its own, bolstered as well by the ethereal plucks of Ben Greenberg (Hubble) on guitar. Equally refreshing is the “Burial” version of Through Donkey Jaw’s “Lezzy Head,” which puts the song into soft focus so it winds up as peaceful pop, eerie phasing replaced with a dubby, wooden beat. It’s a highlight of the EP, though not an improvement on the original so much as a total reimagining.

As for the two alternate versions of Love songs: “I Can’t Dig It,” which appears on Love as a distorted rocker, began as a Stones-y piano tumble and is showcased here, working better without Love’s frontloaded sequencing. Something about McMahon’s slow howl is a bit disorienting, though, almost as if the original, faster vocal take were artificially slowed to match tempo. “Green Eyes” gets squirrelly guitar feedback courtesy of Harvey Milk’s Stephen Tanner on the “Music Blues” mix, in lieu of Elias Ronnenfelt’s skeletal baritone. It’s hard to say if its presence isn’t a little jarring, being a lot brighter and more colorful than the song’s melancholy would seem to afford. But now, since having heard the augmented version, I can’t listen to the old one without its presence feeling a little missed. The extended version of “Love” that ends the record mirrors the opener; again, like track one, it’s basically a pluperfect duplicate of its counterpart, a little bit shinier and slightly longer.

Damon McMahon is slowly but surely drawing back upon his sound to figure out what works, and sometimes it turns out less is more. Cowboy Worship isn’t a cohesive work the way Love was, despite its material actually being a bit more polished in places. But hey, for an EP, this is almost 30 minutes of good-to-great music, and that’s more than you get from a lot of LPs these days.

Links: Amen Dunes - Sacred Bones

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