Sean Rowe, “Magic” (ANTI-)
3.8 out of 5
New York native Sean Rowe just has one of those voices: part Van Morrison, part Tom Waits (his fellow label mate) and part Leonard Cohen, his baritone feels immediately recognizable, yet it is uniquely his own. And, much like the aforementioned artists, Rowe’s voice commands your attention and is not to be ignored. To say Rowe can “project” is something of an understatement; his bellow hits you like a ton of bricks. Rowe also looks like the owner of such a big voice: he is a big, burly and bearded man that, when not recording (or on tour playing gigs), is a dedicated naturalist and wilderness survivalist (he has even studied under wild food expert Samuel Thayer). While this certainly explains some of the lyrical imagery describing humanity’s interaction with nature, it also explains why so many of the songs on his debut LP Magic, feel as though they were written around the campfire. The record’s production further reflects this intention. Rowe’s voice completely dominates the mix, and is often accompanied by little more than acoustic or electric guitar. While Magic was initially self-released in 2009, Rowe went on to sign with ANTI- Records who have wisely re-released it.
“In your letters I can see your mouth was moving, your voice was at the tip of my recall. Then your ghost could only blush against my t-shirt, now your body shows up to take it all.” sings Rowe on the excellent opener “Surprise”, while an electric guitar, light percussion, and a single, sustained organ chord rings in the background. Equally impressive is “Night”, where Rowe’s heavily reverberated voice and acoustic guitar tell the haunting story of soldiers coming in the night through the eyes of a frightened child: “the snow was heavy and the sky was deep, and death was looking for a dancer.” Magic isn’t all slow and somber. There are a number of dirty blues-rock numbers to be found here, including the Nick Cave vibe of “Jonathan” and the excellent Cohen-esque numbers “Black Dodge” and “Wrong Side Of The Bed”. As the pace picks-up, and the arrangements get louder, so too does Rowe, who’s voice feels truly weathered and torn when he pushes into his upper register, particularly on “Wet”, where the accompanying string swells build to a moving crescendo as Rowe screams: “When your heart is broke, when your eyes are wet”.
Despite Magic’s exceptional production, Rowe’s a better folk-singer than blues rocker, and by your third spin through the record you may find yourself editing. Nevertheless, it’s rare to find such focus and maturity on a debut record. And, even where the arrangements are lacking, there’s still Rowe’s force of nature baritone to enjoy, and for many listeners, that might just be enough.
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