It's strange how Kevin Devine's candid songs can really hit home

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

January 08, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

At the thought of it, I sighed and rolled my eyes.

When Kevin Devine's new CD, Make the Clocks Move, crossed my desk, I assumed it was yet another one of those overwrought, heart-in-the-dust, I'm-consumed-by-my-sorrows kind of records that typically flows out of the indie rock genre. I vaguely knew his work with the emo band Miracle of 86. And judging from the amateurish, sad-faced sketch of Kevin on the cover, I assumed the singer-songwriter had delivered a batch of self-loathing tunes.

Strum, strum, strum on the guitar; blah, blah, blah on the mike. Another wannabe-artsy singer whining about his so-called life. I played it anyway, just knew my assumptions were gonna be on point.

Nope. I was way off the mark.

Make the Clocks Move is a solid record, sparkling with subtle folk-rock arrangements and bolstered by intelligent, revelatory lyrics. In the opening lines of the CD's first song, "Ballgame," Kevin figures we really don't care to hear another singer-songwriter record burdened with cement lyrics: "I know the kid with his guitar so drunk and anxious has been done to death," he croons. "So tell me what hasn't / I'll try it ... I'm selfish enough to wanna get better."

Throughout the 14-cut set, Kevin is so unblinkingly candid about the anxieties of life in your 20s -- the quarter-life crisis of social, sexual, professional insecurities -- that I had to turn the CD off a few times and let the material marinate in my head. Brotha keeps it too real, and it all hits home with me.

I tell him this on the phone, and he says, "Sorry about that" with a slightly nervous chuckle. He's calling from his Brooklyn apartment. "A lot of the album was kind of gradual. I didn't sit down and put the record together in one shot. A lot of it comes from experiences of having [bad] relationships, a [dead-end] job and the anxiety about your place in the world. But I hope that the record shows some hope."

It does from time to time, especially on such cuts as the moving "Thanks" and the bittersweet "Splitting Up Christmas." But the bleakness of love and life is handled so unflinchingly that the lyrics bloom, becoming bare-bone poems.

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Staten Island, Kevin, 24, was surrounded by introspective music. His folks -- mom's a nurse; his pops, who died early last year, was a New York City cop -- used to play Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Beatles and lots of Joni Mitchell.

"When I was a teen-ager, I was huge into Nirvana. I didn't want to deal with my parents' music. But around the time I was 18, I got back to the music my parents played and bands like R.E.M. and the Counting Crows and Elliott Smith."

Hearing Nirvana's masterful 1994 Unplugged album opened Kevin to new ways to approach the hard rock he was playing at the time.

"Before, I was trying to play everything so loud and bleeding," he says. "I realized how great the songs were with just guitar and the lyrics. Ninety percent of the things I've written since 20 is stuff you can listen to alone in your room."

On Make the Clocks Move -- Kevin's follow-up to his 2002 solo debut, Circle Gets the Square -- he fleshes out the acoustic guitar-based arrangements with heavy percussion, even glockenspiel. The overall sound is natural, fluidly organic.

"As far as flowering out the arrangements," the artist says, "I have a drum piece here, a bass piece here. Ninety percent of my songs I write on the acoustic guitar, because I don't have room for the other instruments here in my apartment. ... I hear little mini-musical arrangements in my head. So by the time we're in the studio, just about everything is worked out."

He was on a roll. In 21 days, the new record was done. Kevin says the "lion's share" of the material was written in two months. The man, who earned a degree in journalism and English from Fordham University, is always writing -- in notebooks, on the back of receipts, paper bags, napkins. Since he was around 7, Kevin has poured his thoughts on paper. It's a therapeutic process, ya know.

"I try not to be the kid who writes his way out of his problems," he says. "At the very least, the writing helps clear my thoughts, which is always helpful."

Mainstream radio probably won't help the artist by playing his too-real, unadorned music, but Kevin isn't fazed. Characteristically candid, he says, "I've lost faith in pop as the arbiter of popular culture. It is encouraging that the Erykah Badus, the OutKasts, the White Stripes make the Top 5 and sell. If I can turn on the radio and hear those artists, it leaves a little hope for something better in mainstream pop."

And although you may have to take a moment to let the words settle on you, Kevin's music is well worth it. We all know how uncomfortable the truth can be.

But won't it set you free?

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