Kevin Devine has had a hell of a year.
The 25-year-old Brooklynite played some 300 shows supporting everyone from Bright Eyes and Nellie McKaye to Bob Mould and Cassandra Wilson. His flair for grafting deft wordplay to clever melodies began to earn him some acclaim for "Make the Clocks Move," his first release on Brooklyn's Triple Crown Records. He watched horrified while his country had to choose between two pro-war, pro-corporate presidential candidates and inevitably managed to pick the 'wrong' one anyway. Most devastatingly, the prolific young songwriter spent the year piecing his life back together after suddenly losing his father to a fatal stroke while touring in Germany.
Kevin's response to this all this tumult was to bunker down and turn his experiences into his most compelling and far-reaching work to date: "Split The Country, Split The Street," his third and best solo album.
A thoughtful, friendly indie rocker with a shock of orange hair and headful of good words, Devine has already been pegged by some as an acolyte of Elliott Smith, and his new record might start you thinking that this is going to basically be what you expected: a collection of mid-fi folk songs. That'd be before the huge drums, wall of guitars, and wailing vocals of "Cotton Crush" deliver one of the biggest explosions you'll hear this year. Fans of Kevin's prior band Miracle of 86 will be glad to find him stretching out his powerful, distinctive voice and getting back to blowing out the PA in the process.
Devine is equally at home strumming an acoustic guitar or cranking through an amplifier; his words set the songs apart. Like most songwriters, Devine has a fair fascination with the themes of love and death. What is remarkable about "Split The Country, Split The Street" is how he examines the latter topic from two utterly distinct perspectives, both musically and lyrically. If "Alabama Acres" makes you want to cry to yourself alone at home, "Yr Damned Ol' Dad" is the soundtrack for a night at a whiskey bar with some good friends and a ton of blow. "I don't wanna think about the world right now/I wanna go from bar to bar and wash the taste clean out," the singer intones. "I wanna feel the way I felt when we were kids messin' around/before I thought about the world like I do now."
Another more fully developed wrinkle in the songwriting this time around is Devine's embrace of social protest. The bounciest, hookiest song on the record, "No Time Flat", employs a breezy summer bop to question the efficiency of the American electoral process, challenge government-sponsored and private corporate contractors in Iraq to pull out, and forward the notion that true support of the troops involves bringing them all back home. Album closer "Lord, I Know We Don't Talk" continues the folk tradition of calling out leaders who invoke religion to justify repressive and violent agendas in the name of a higher power.
Devine wrote that song in a New Orleans motel, and sharpened his arrangements for most of this material while on the road, performing solo and with The Goddamn Band. The album's more dynamic moments are driven by Miracle of 86 drummer Mike Skinner and guitarist/bassist Chris Bracco, who produced the past two albums, pianist Amy Bracco, violinist Margaret White (Cat Power/Belle & Sebastian/Sparklehorse), guitarist Russell Smith, singer Carey Brandenburg, guitarist Mike Robertson (also from Miracle), percussionist Kevin Kolankowski, and a guest appearance by Brand New vocalist Jessie Lacey.
If "Split the Country, Split the Street" doesn't exactly erase the tough parts of the past year, it does turn those hardships into something that was worth fighting for. It's the record Kevin's supporters have been waiting for, and the one that'll get the others off the fence.