David J. Roch: Skin & Bones (Dram)
The punk aspiration that "everyone can" has been rendered by the digital age a democratic reality, and a jaundiced reward. A tsunami of silver discs panhandle the ears of listeners, and as a result an air of capable mediocrity holds sway, an invisible ether of downloads gas expectations with their average worth instant availability, and then, but only occasionally, something creeps out of the speakers that startles and stuns, demands proper attention, and soars above the parliament of ordinary birds and their common-place warblings.
Though this is a debut album, Sheffield's David J. Roch sounds like a seasoned hand. He also betrays a sense of pain and sorrow at odds with his tender years, but the first cut, even if more brutal ones follow, feels like the deepest, the most wounding. His songs are proof and testament to this, have a power, maturity, and directness that swagger and twitch like freshly ripped entrails, bloodied snakes of divine suffering and longing. Everything begins with a haunting androgyny. Imagine a lone chorister raising his voice to the sanctified rafters, and you have the opening track, "The Lost Child," which develops from boyish girlishness into a masculine folk frenzy, then falls to silence. It is followed by the low-key industrial backdrop of "Hour of Need," a plaintive lullaby of loss, the urge to hang on to someone who wishes to discard your attentions. Aching and sad.
This is not a collection for those who require Michael Buble-esque breeziness. It is artful and considered, and at odds with mass appeal. "Evil's Pillow" contains a searing intro that develops into a butched-up Antony & the Johnsons, a churning epic of a song that displays the multitude of textures that Roch can deliver vocally. Strung along with strings, it is a deft sequence of refined touches. He is a singer who allows his powerful voice to stand alone. There is a gospel brazenness to the space and sparseness deployed in "The Devil Don't Mind," which also has echoes of Tom McRae's melancholy wistfulness. This really is 21st Century Folk that has collided with a lost Eastern European marching band. Things take a more reflective pace in "Hell Followed" with its hymn-like quality, a trait that the late David Ackles was so prone to indulging. This secular pastoral vibe is also evident in "Lonely Unfinished" as Roch delivers his best angel with a dirty face confection.
"Only Love" is a slow waltz, a crooning epic for the cabaret at the end of the world. His voice sails and floats above the initially spartan orchestral setting, but then the song explodes in a churning, protracted, bubbling ache. I found myself weeping as it first unfolded, and it still has that latent power to evoke and provoke. Sadness, like smiles, can be so hopelessly infectious. Glam-like sassiness slinks, arcs, and seethes in "Dew," a masculine roar of need and despair that twists in a near rap-like matter-of-factness. It is one of the most powerful cuts on the album.
The title track is a folk lament in which Roch again reveals the multitude of colors his larynx can blend and bestow. A refined howl of honesty that builds to a rock-like dirge, it then slinks quietly into the shadows. "Bones" is a melancholy malady that Jeff Buckley would have mastered. Concise, sparse, and vulnerable, it pulls at the heart. Lyrically Roch is baldly unpoetic and direct, because the true poetry resides in his voice. That raw simplicity in his words makes his delivery all the more unnerving. The primal howl that arises in "Yours" is as intoxicating as it is unsettling.
What makes Skin & Bones such a rare treasure is the astonishing range Roch unleashes vocally, along with the delicacy of his song-craft, aided and abetted by the scope and spartan brevity of the production values of Bad Seed & Grinderman drummer Jim Sclavunos. In a world of willful conformity, David J. Roch is a rare flowering of impassioned talent. This is no humble beginning, but it suggests a future of riches and reward for him, and for those that he enraptures along the way.