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Richard Buckner 

Staying curious

On the rooftop of Rudyard's in Houston way back in the winter of 2000, Richard Buckner and Alejandro Escovedo sat, talking to Thirsty Ear writer David Ensminger, dismissing Robert Christgau and Spin and evading questions about record labels. During the interview, Ensminger did what most music writers often do: Out of reverence-borne curiosity, he pressed too hard with Buckner, apparently more interested in his pre-set salad than Ensminger's queries about negative reviews and fragmentary song cycles. Nearly halfway into the talk, Ensminger compared Buckner's songs to the stories of Raymond Carver, saying that they seemed to paint portraits of "kind of helpless, kind of confused" people.

"That's everybody, man. What else would the songs be about?" Buckner quipped coolly, casually trying to quell that curiosity before detailing a Coleridge-leaning methodology of his songwriting, built at the time on a lot of pot and even more free association.

That story is relevant for two reasons: since that interview four years ago, Escovedo has become one of Buckner's characters, one of the helpless survivors that the Texas bard has built a career portraying over the past decade. In 2001, Escovedo collapsed onstage, an uninsured musician debilitated by Hepatitis C and unable to record or take to the stage.

So it would seem that Buckner--a lumbering, enigmatic, poetic folker shuffled from indie label to MCA to indie label to indie label over the past eight albums--would be phased by that dour of an outlook for a fellow musician, a friend and a legend.

Buckner's resilience doesn't seem to be fading, though. On Dents and Shells, his appropriately titled upcoming Merge Records debut, he writes, "I let up with the dents of a near collision," but he confesses his need to "put the bones to use" despite having "been thrown before." That kind of drive defines this album, as Buckner presses on while documenting settling foundations, exiting brakelights and "the big distraction glow."

"There have been a lot of points in my career when I probably should have stopped for a while and gotten some kind of a real job, but you just keep going," Buckner says gruffly early in the morning after a late show in Cleveland. "Whatever you're left with sometimes should probably be just what you should have."

Written in an impressively fecund few days in a little room Buckner rented outside of Austin while off tour several Februarys ago, Dents and Shells spots life's shortcomings and curses, its glitches and gambles, and spits them out in poetically braced, inestimably ponderous country songs played by Buckner's most experimental and rock-aiming band to date. The outfit--which includes bassist Meat Puppet Andrew Duplantis and Butthole Surfer King Coffey--storms through the beautiful "Invitation" like a "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" Stray Gators before wandering so far into space on the cymbal-crashing, snare-rolling album closer that comparisons to Uncle Tupelo this time around seem more closely aligned to Jeff Tweedy than Jay Farrar.

That's expected for Buckner, though, who has spent the latest part of his career reckoning his newfound love of noise, loops and distortion (courtesy of recording with Tortoise/Sea and Cake auteur John McEntire) with his long-standing fascination with old-time roots. Live, Buckner's been feeding several acoustic guitars, an upright chord organ, an E-bow and his ragged voice into a system of those loops, building a cohesive set from bits and pieces of that night's performance as he goes.

"Doing that keeps me curious and interested, but it's more about keeping my nights on tour interesting," Buckner says. "It definitely doesn't show on any record at all, but it's just the way I think of doing it live. I mean, I still find these songs really interesting."

Richard Buckner plays the Cat's Cradle on Tuesday, Oct. 19--the day of Merge's release of his new Dents and Shells--with Damien Jurado, Dolorean and Dios.

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