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Rinde Eckert
The Natural World

National Sawdust Tracks / Songtone Productions
Review and interview by Tyran Grillo
Photos by Eva Mueller

Listen "Catbird"

The Natural World neutralizes a fundamental contradiction between beginnings and endings. Where some philosophies might claim that one cancels out the other, in the song craft of Rinde Eckert these two seeming extremes reveal an infinite trajectory in either direction. Like the piano solo from which the album derives its name, the program is at once a culmination of life experiences and the genesis of others yet to be lived. The mutual exclusion of performer and performed has rarely sounded so beautiful, not only because Eckert speaks through every instrument one hears, including guitars, piano, accordion, South American wood flute, and percussion, among others, but also because he lets every instrument speak through him. These 13 songs speak of a multi-valent biography, each the seed for another biography entirely.

The album resulted from a two-month period during which, under the auspices of a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, he gave free performances around the country, spanning the gamut from living rooms to festival stages. Such freedom of expression, unscathed by the barbs of practical worry, allowed him to shed inhibition toward the realization of something he’d been angling for all those years.

Eckert admits as much in a phone interview. “I didn’t have anything to prove anymore,” he goes on to say, “and wasn’t looking for anything I didn’t already have. As a result, there’s a freedom in the record that mirrors what I felt throughout this experience. And luckily, Lee [Lee Townsend, his producer] was with me on all of this. As soon as we got into the studio, everything felt so right. At some point I just had to look around and tell myself that I didn’t regret anything.”

Listen "Black Is The Color" (excerpt)

In light of the organic way in which this album took shape, not a single brushstroke feels forced onto the canvas. It’s a dynamic established at the outset as Eckert puts his spin on the folk gem “Black is the Color.” It grounds us in a familiar space before venturing along less foot-worn paths. Over a synthesizer drone, his voice illustrates the change of seasons from damp pasts into arid futures.

Listen "Time Is Our Own"

His voice is indeed the alpha and omega of The Natural World. Whether rowing Indian classical waters in “Time is Our Own” and “The Singer Sings” or gilding the edges of a fantastical Americana in “Hearts are Hearts,” his throat is an entity unto itself. The arrangements themselves are artful and adaptive to the needs of every lyric.

Listen "Bar Fight"

The ukulele of “Bar Fight” emphasizes a jig-like whimsy and navigates thin moral ice with tactful indulgence, while the piano and gossamer electric guitar of “Prayer” carry his natural countertenor over merciful plains. His use of that higher register evokes a time when such voices were a part of the everyday soundscape and here attunes the listener to a different vibrational mode. “It does put us in a different kind of space,” admits Eckert, “a wonderfully genderless space that frees us from all the attitudes that one can bring to the situation. I tend to use it when I want to jump us out of our expectations and into a liminal world.”

Listen "Day by Day" (excerpt)

Other songs spotlight his haunting tenor. Where the anthemic “Day by Day,” for instance, sounds like Roland Orzabal gone country, his wordless songs (most notably the concluding track, “Amelia Steals”) reveal an affinity with Meredith Monk, whom he credits as being “one of the key investigators of the voice and sound. There’s an interest in things ancient, and I think that’s one thing we have in common. My road, of course, is very different, but we share a desire to connect with something very old.”

Listen "Cantata" (excerpt)

This nourishment of ancient roots yields a supple flower in Eckert’s liberal arrangement of a Bach cantata. Sung in German over a droning backdrop, it’s a song about both gratitude and loss. “As is true of the whole record, it’s a mixture of joy and sadness, and so everything is measured by something else. The song’s reference to mutterliebe [motherly love] speaks of the different joys and hurts we inherit. We bear those scars as evidence of our progress in our efforts to free ourselves from our prejudices and live gracefully in this world. The idea is being able free yourself to join The Natural World, to take all those disparate thoughts and strange experiences that lead you to defend yourself and just let them go.”

We find that same prayer echoed in the album’s masterpiece, “Catbird,” which for Eckert is “a statement of my life as a singer.” Its wooden flute and banjo evoke a shakuhachi and koto, yet feel as nostalgic as a favorite childhood meal. I don’t know why we’re here, under the stars, he sings, baring his heart to the night. Why there is hope or fear under the stars. This, too, is a prayer, one that resonates with the power of dreams from a truly hybrid artist who casts his fishing line into the heart and pulls out some of the biggest catches you’ll have felt in a long time. - Tyran Grillo



The Music of the Month selection for September 2018
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Our September 2018 selection for
Music of the Month


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