The first few moments of Amen Dunes’ latest record, Love, may well sum up the band. There’s a gentle, pacesetting guitar rhythm being chased by another lumbering guitar that can’t quite find its footing. And just as those two worlds mingle—one timeless and efficient, very much in the vein of classic folk, the other a product of human creativity and adaptation—frontman Damon McMahon sings.
And when McMahon sings, not much else in the room matters. He’s got one of those voices, a bewitching blend of Jim James, Father John Misty and even David Gray. Perhaps that’s why the Brooklyn musician has mostly kept to himself and a few trusted bandmates over the years: He is in custody of a voice so big it might crush anybody else in the studio. McMahon, who dreamed up Amen Dunes in an upstate New York trailer in 2006, brought the idea to life with guitarist-pianist Jordi Wheeler and drummer Parker Kindred a few years later in the city.
Love is the trio’s third full-length, the fullest and least insular to date. McMahon has grown tremendously since the self-described “fucked-up” days heading the band Inouk. Now 33, McMahon has learned the strength of restraint.
Whereas previous records took just weeks from writing to recording, Love consumed more than a year. “It was definitely very thought-out,” McMahon says. “It was not off-the-cuff in any way.” It required four studios and a lot of scrapping. Yet it comes across as one of the most nonchalant, comfortable, self-confident new-Americana albums in recent memory. “Although I was a perfectionist with the record, the core music was all first gigs, pretty much,” McMahon says. “The labor was after the fact.” He says he was thinking about “spiritual jazz” throughout post-production, garnishing tracks with strings, vibraphones and percussion. Then it got too big. So he pulled out the scissors. “It was a real whittling down to the core elements.”
The beauty of Love lies in subtlety. Like Mount Eerie, Amen Dunes offers a soft volatility seemingly plucked from nature itself. There’s repetition and simplicity chased by flashes of brilliance. Take “Lonely Richard,” with its slow-boil guitar riff, marching drums and rolling twang. The music lulls while McMahon’s vocals haunt. It’s a one-two punch of pure and polished—the same dualism that kicks off the album—that most musicians attempt but never achieve.
“It’s music from a remote space, but this particular record is also very much a New York record,” McMahon says. “It’s organic and also urban.” Which is funny to hear from someone who admits it’s virtually impossible to write a song in the Big Apple. But in tracks like “I Know Myself” and “Lilac in Hand,” it clicks: neo-folk on the surface, dipped in the musical melting pot of New York, from jazz to soul to Latin music.
The best caption of Amen Dunes may be the cover art itself. Love
features a grainy photo of a half-naked girl glancing over her shoulder
somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. It’s twilight and she appears to be
putting her clothes back on and returning to civilization. She seems
torn between the mesmerizing sky and the need to push on. It’s a
powerful shot that defines Amen Dunes’ own alluring position, wedged
somewhere between coming of age and the age-old.
SEE IT: Amen Dunes plays Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., with Axxa/Abraxas, on Friday, July 11. 10 pm. $8 advance, $10 day of show. 21+.