For music obsessives, there comes a time when, having burnt yourself out on the classics, you immerse yourself in ephemera. You may turn to scratchy bootlegs of live shows, expensive box sets of alternate takes, or unauthorized collections of outtakes, passed down by fellow travellers. While less polished than the music that brought you to an artist’s work in the first place, these hidden gems offer a different and equally important thrill: They feel like your own.
Nebraska songwriter David Nance has internalized this behavior like few working artists. He has a habit of covering beloved albums in their entirety, but his own music is where he really puts his fandom to the test. He draws unabashedly from classic rock touchstones like the Allman Brothers and Crazy Horse, the Stones and the Stooges, the Dead and the Basement Tapes. But instead of reaching for their crowd-pleasing heights, he strips his music to its raw, noisy core. At their best, his songs reveal how his favorite records might have sounded when they were still being hammered out in rehearsal.
Nance’s latest studio album, Staunch Honey, features the sharpest and most distinctive songwriting of his career, but the sound remains gloriously unrefined. According to a press release, he reworked the material three times before settling on these renditions: recorded at home, directly to tape, with just a few appearances from collaborators like guitarist Jim Schroeder and drummer Kevin Donohue. (Thus it’s billed as a solo album, as opposed to 2018’s Peaced and Slightly Pulverised, released as the David Nance Group.)
The homespun feel of the album gives it a psychedelic, outsider charm, like if Ariel Pink’s early work had been inspired by jam bands and Southern rock instead of ’60s novelty songs and jingles. Like Pink, Nance is a deceptively traditional songwriter, banding together clever hooks and catchy riffs that play with an uncanny familiarity. As a self-producer, he complements this gift: “This Side of the Moon” begins with a whispered refrain rising deep within the mix, like he’s cuing the band, while the first chorus of “July Sunrise” trails off with a wordless coda, as if he’s still workshopping the melody.
Other highlights, like “Gentle Traitor” and “My Love, the Dark and I,” are warbly studio concoctions, sketches of songs that seem in danger of dissipating into tape hiss. Nance drawls through their fuzzy arrangements in a deep, grungy voice, maintaining the mood rather than expressing any specific emotion. It is partially why his lyrics, when you can make them out, seem primed to sing along with even when you have no idea what he’s talking about: “The worst part about seeing you this evening,” he sings in “Save Me Some Tears,” “is horseflies soaking in my ice tea.”
For such a warped, solitary album, Staunch Honey seems designed for open spaces. On a recent live album, recorded for a socially distant iteration of Gonerfest, the music comes alive, played by a band laughing and cracking jokes, extending solos and jamming out, encouraged by a small group of people hearing it all for the first time. “This is making my year,” Nance announces near the end, before admitting, “Not a hard bar to pass.” While the songs on Staunch Honey feel like breakthroughs, it’s living proof that their real journey is just beginning.
Buy: Rough Trade
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