Matt Kivel’s records have always been really beautiful. Previously on Double Exposure and Days of Being Wild, he focused on creating a hushed atmosphere to showcase small gestures like the flutter of his voice and small changes in dynamics that ranged from pretty soft to really quiet. On Janus (Driftless Recordings), he takes a big step (but not too big) outside his comfort zone. It’s refreshing to hear other instruments like strings, bass, solo horns, and drums (played mostly with brushes, not sticks). It’s not that Kivel has never worked with other musicians or sounds before, but in the past it’s been about augmenting his voice and guitar work. In this case, these other forces take the spotlight and sometimes the lead. These songs are as delicate as his previous work, but he fills them up, stretching the skin, testing to see how hard he can push before he draws blood and breaks the spell. And then, sometimes, he lets loose and breaks the spell completely, and those moments are the biggest surprises on the record.
It’s easy to imagine how a song like “Pyrrha” would have sounded if he recorded it solo; it would be quite pretty and airy, but would lack the momentum that it gains when the rhythm section joins in. The easy-going lift and lilt of tracks like “Jamie’s” and “Violets” will put you in mind of a cloudier Kurt Vile, though, the second half of the former is full of noisy delight. It’s also heartening to hear how Kivel’s voice flowers when he’s interacting with other players. The result is a solid collection with more variety than anything he’s produced before, but it also moves him closer to the generalized middle. This Matt Kivel record sounds more like everybody else’s records. I’ll be eager to hear what happens when he finds a way to make all these new toys his own.