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Small Sur delivers a three-song EP of haunting beauty

Small Sur: "Bare Black"

Label:Aural Slate
Release Date:2010
Genre:Indie Rock
More info on local act

Small Sur

Small Sur plays a CD release show at the Metro Gallery Aug. 5 with Strand of Oaks and the Dodgers.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 8/4/2010

Before even getting into musicianship and just how lovely "Bare Black" is, let's ask real quick how in the hell does someone in a chaotic and just generally loud East Coast city even maintain the proper headspace to make three songs this halcyon beautiful, let alone maintain a five-odd-years-long musical project of it? Keeping said headspace intact is why city people move to Portland or Seattle and non-city people, well, don't live in cities. Not to say that Small Sur is that stylistically unique in Baltimore. There are, after all, a good number of earnest and convincing local folk outfits, but maybe none that maintains with such ease this parallel dimension or alternate mental geography of pastoral endless green.

In fact, "Small Sur" refers to a non-place, a play on California's idyllic Big Sur. In the short span of three songs, "Bare Black" is an express ticket there. The EP ditches somewhat the guy-and-a-guitar Small Sur lyrical folk of earlier records, which was really good but not quite so far apart as these songs. Instead, you're saturated in lush, warm drone of hum, singing pedal-steel, the sparest of guitar, the mildest coat of alto sax, and tempos in the range of moon-gravity slow motion. The sort of music that has the ability to hook a listener and does so to a degree, but it is far more interested in surrounding or soaking you--kind of the way a particularly special place does.

As a lyricist, Small Sur frontman Bob Keal is powerfully sincere, almost concrete in a way that counters the music. "Under Trees" is sung so slow with so much space in its verses, it can't help being abstract or distant. Otherwise, consider "Weeds" when Keal sings bared-soul, "When we finally drive to visit my father's grave/ weeds and dandelions growing around where he lay/ and I will pull them from existence with calloused hands." The music, a warm hum of pedal steel and possibly sax, is as efficient, solemn, and pretty as the scene.

Or, just imagine a song called "I Started to Cry" in the wrong hands. Keal's are not, of course, delivering a song of ringing and reverberating picked guitar soaking in its own ambiance like an ice cube melting in slow motion. And then the record is over, rather too quickly. Less than 15 minutes even, but it's the sort of thing with such a satisfying wholeness that it feels like more the sum of its parts. More, please.

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E-mail Michael Byrne

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