Kevin Devine has released a steady wave of material since 2005's Split the Country, Split the Street. This review covers everything he's done in that time, aside from the previously reviewed 2007 Tour EP.
Put Your Ghost to Rest -
The singer/songwriter had inked to Capitol shortly after the release of the aforementioned full-length, and a little over a year later issued his major label debut, Put Your Ghost to Rest.
While it benefited wholeheartedly from warm and brighter production (courtesy of Rob Schnapf [Elliott Smith, Saves the Day, the Vines]), the likes of which Devine hadn't quite seen on earlier efforts, it largely suffered from the same issues that seem to have plagued Devine all along. Most of the basic, stripped-down numbers here don't often extend beyond the realm of "pleasant." On longer albums like these, Devine is simply at his best when he's striving for more dynamic and agonizing structures, and it's not present enough.
It's not necessarily a bad album, but 'middling' is a rough description it too often fits. "Brooklyn Boy" and "You're Trailing Yourself" is a pair of lightly folk-tinged, mildly innocuous numbers, while "Just Stay" provides the real first set of truly compelling moments. Devine strains his voice a little more and it's a much needed change in volume.
From there, Ghost settles into a safe groove. Devine's voice has a nicely consistent, somewhat velvety touch about it that just manages to retain a moderate level of interest. You get some country twang on "Less Yesterday, More Today" and the slightly more exuberant and layered "Like Cursing Kids," while "The Burning City Smoking" is surprisingly bouncy for running over the five-minute mark.
The best moment comes in "Me & My Friends," the 'chorus' of which ("I wanna stop it") is one of the best and most graceful Devine's written. Ironically, this is one of the few times on Ghost where I truly don't want to stop it.
Otherwise, Put Your Ghost to Rest too often doesn't extend beyond being very background-oriented, an almost constant acoustic hum that isn't completely boring, but in need of many more interesting tricks.
It was reissued two years later on Procrastinate! Music Traitors, a new-ish label very quietly run by members of Brand New.
Another Bag of Bones 7" -
That 2007 Tour EP followed Ghost's release a year later and was much more promising, even if the covers were the main highlights. There were some creative tendencies that you hoped Devine would kick into his original material.
Come August 2008, Devine released a new 7" titled Another Bag of Bones. Maybe it was all the touring and associating so heavily with mesmerizing and dynamic bands like Brand New and Manchester Orchestra, but something had happened. Devine had suddenly found his hidden knack for writing great songs that, to be honest, largely seemed lost since the last Miracle of 86 EP. It's his creative renaissance, if you will.
Another Bag of Bones only has two songs but both command the listener's attention more strongly than most of Devine's past offerings. The title track is great, as Devine lets his blood boil with every passing line in an incredibly tense and building indictment of American foreign policy, environmental apathy and injustices abroad ("It's a farm boy sprinting over desert dirt / And he's panting the 'Our Father' in staccato spurts"). A patterned strum makes the base of just about the entire song, the guitar being doubled soon enough, with Devine getting more and more jarring in his delivery; more guitars eventually join the fold in the form of haunting, lightly distorted layers. Yet all along, there's a very careful restraint about things.
The B-side here is a lyrical reworking of Phil Ochs' famous bout of folk sarcasm, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal." Devine plays it pretty straight, but addresses the modern political climate so the song fits and the singer's sly sense of humor comes through well: "But Afghanistan got what was coming / It was the right thing to do at the time / […] / And I can't enough of Obama / His message of change sure speaks to me." Whether or not Devine is questioning the very choir he's built over the years is debatable, but if so, it's commendable.
I Could Be with Anyone EP -
The I Could Be with Anyone EP came out a short while thereafter, and was exclusive to Devine's tour with Manchester Orchestra. He shares credit with his Goddamn Band here and provides a preview of his next full-length, Brother's Blood.
The title track, which will appear on that album, opens with a soft electronic beat and goes into a bustling, upbeat number with a punctual pickup.
The other three are EP-exclusive, with the best being a demo version of "She Stayed as Steam." I know I've generally been critical of Devine's minimal material being fairly lackluster, but he's found its advantages in a song like this. There's a hint of tension that abruptly grabs the listener towards the end when Devine observes, "You breathe through your mouth, / you calm yourself down / and hold what you found / so sweet and profound."
There's a light fuzz and certain atmosphere on "What's Keeping Us Young" that has sort of a hypnotic touch about it, making for a fine closer.
Though I found Put Your Ghost to Rest a little disappointing considering Devine's talent and occasionally brilliant lyrical touch, his newer stuff seems a big step up. If the last two EPs are any indication, Brother's Blood might be Devine's most inspired and dynamic body of work to date.