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Vegetative State

Small Sur's Patient Songs Channel Loss And Lethargy

Michael Northrup
Bob Keal (third from left) and Small Sur get back to nature in their own sweet time.

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Small Sur

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 8/6/2008

"Right now I'm thinking a lot about growing things, and about things tied to my father," says Bob Keal, the solemn-voiced songwriter behind Small Sur. He is sitting in the band's practice space, a second-floor parlor in a Charles Village rowhouse that bassist Scott Dennison owns and lives in with his girlfriend. Keal wears cutoff jean shorts and an intensely thick beard that reaches up to and above his cheekbones. "It waxes and wanes how much I think about it."

In the backyard, Dennison has planted a modest garden full of decorative bushes with mirrors hanging on a tall wooden fences on each side to reflect the greenery. A few moments ago, walking barefoot among the plants, Keal had talked about how much he wanted his own garden this summer, but he just never found the time. "I think [I] even might want to raise a few chickens at my place, too," he says. "But I'm just so lazy."

Gardening, tending the earth, watching things grow--all these things are not just what Keal has been pondering lately but also guiding principles for the music his band makes. Small Sur, a two-and-a-half-year-old project started by Keal, Dennison, and another musician who has since left the group, makes dreamy, understated, lo-fi rock that rarely rises above the tempo at which plants grow. (Multi-instrumentalist Andy Abelow, who also performs with folkstress Jana Hunter and plays sax in the instrumental ensemble Golden Age, joined about a year ago.) But in Small Sur's case, slow means neither boring nor the downer-rock ethos of Low or Galaxie 500.

Small Sur's sound is composed of tidy layers of ambiance that are both robust and beautiful. The sustain pedal on Abelow's electronic keyboard is key. The aesthetic most closely resembles droopy artists such as Will Oldham, Dolorean, and the Red House Painters, bands that require a serious commitment to sit, think, and not nod off while getting deep into a listening session. Small Sur releases its first LP, We Live in Houses Made of Wood, on Portland, Ore.-based indie label Tender Loving Empire, which is home to several like-minded folky, introspective acts, including Jared Mees and Eskimo and Sons.

"When we started playing, it sounded like a country-rock-pop band, but, for me, it kept coming back to the idea of patience," Keal says. "I don't feel like music comes to me immediately, and I don't think I should be playing it with that sort of immediacy."

A lot of his songs take a simple line of musical phrasing, often in simple, pentatonic scale-based melody, and pairs it with an equally simple lyrical text--"I was walking through a great, great valley and I saw you," from "Two Mantras," for example--and repeats it with tidy restraint, adding ethereal backing vocals and steel guitars, saxophone lines, or other ornaments, until each song builds to a subtle conclusion. "Ohhhhh Pt. 1" ends on a Chinese-sounding, repeated pentatonic flute and guitar solo that bleeds into the vocal melody of "Ohhhhh Pt. 2," which features singing by Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner. To sit and listen to each song, one after the other, is to slip into a seriously mesmerized state.

But the really impressive part is Keal's Whitman-esque lyrics, which he says are inspired by his years growing up on a farm outside Brookings, S.D., where his father worked as an agronomist. "I grew up on a farm and couldn't just bike up the road to visit my buddies, so I had to fill my time a bit more creatively," he recalls. "I spent a lot of time running around outside, fishing, collecting bottles, shotting my BB gun, that sort of thing. I didn't always appreciate that stuff then, but as I get older, I really appreciate those experiences."

At a Copy Cat Annex Theater concert last month, Small Sur closed its set, which included guest parts from the Pennsylvania band Orchard and Ponds, with "Weeds," a song that doesn't appear on Wood but was recorded for a recent Tender Loving Empire compilation. The song, which Keal wrote six months ago about his father, who died of cancer seven years ago, begins with a few astonishingly frank lines in memoriam that, when paired with its crisp melody, have a sombering effect: "When I finally drive to visit my father's grave/ Weeds and dandelions growing above where he lay/ I will pull them from existence with calloused hands/ They've grown harder for this very purpose since the day he left."

Keal says he was 19 when his father died, living in Battle Creek, Neb.--where his family, including his father, had moved for the younger Keal's high school years. At the time, Keal was in a serious romance and was considering settling on a farm with his girlfriend. But after his father died, he headed west, with a sort of self-determination in mind, and attended Azusa University in Southern California. "If he hadn't died, it might have been drastically different," Keal says.

In California, he met Kyle Field, the similarly bearded songwriter who performs Devendra Banhart-esque folk rock under the name Little Wings. Inspired by a festival in the hippie mecca of Big Sur, Calif., where the two met up with friends each year, Field who suggested the name "Small Sur." Keal had written a bleak, stranded-sounding song about the place that began, "Big Sur greeted me like we were old friends/ been chums since we were young kids," and the name stuck.

Keal moved to Baltimore after college for an AmeriCorps assignment and now, at 26, he teaches English as a second language to kindergartners in Highlandtown during the day and tours as much as he can during the summer. Small Sur's CD-release show is to be followed by a six-date mini-tour in the Northwest with a few friends and labelmates. In the meantime, Small Sur is preparing by experimenting with tempos. Back in the practice space, the band runs through "The Kelp," a plodding, quiet song that evokes the seashore, salty winds, and mountains of Southern California, complete with bird songs piped in the background and haunting backing vocals by sometime band member Julianne Nelson.

"We're trying to speed this up a little bit so it isn't so boring," Keal explains with a smile. The pace is still slow and persistent--a bit like plants growing.

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