Sam Moss – Neighbors EP

Sam Moss - Neighbors EP

When I reviewed guitarist Sam Moss’s Eight Constructions for Delusions of Adequacy a little more than a year ago, I made a point to address his keen application of restraint to what could have otherwise been a piece of gratuitous showmanship.  When virtuosity becomes a heedless exercise, what was once a spellbinding demonstration of unthinkable prowess rapidly devolves into quotidian routine.  Thanks to a palpable command of musical devices that transcended mere technique, Moss’s first two LPs were stunning collections of acoustic collages, meant to shine a light on an admittedly brilliant guitarist who was also adroit enough to know when it was time to give his fingers a rest from the fretboard.

Yet for all of his charms as an instrumentalist, I was also fairly candid in my desire to hear how much further Moss could push himself on subsequent releases as a more traditional songwriter.  For a guy so steeped in the raw emotions of American folk and blues music, it was something of a wonder that nothing had materialized from Moss involving vocals, or at the very least, a hummable melody.  That all changes on Neighbors, on which it is increasingly easy to draw comparisons to a certain early 80s Bruce Springsteen record whose spare and haunting songs have made it among the most critically acclaimed albums in his extensive catalog.

In truth, this six-song EP places Sam Moss exactly where I had hoped to find him at this point in his career.  The judicious guitar and banjo playing remains intact, as does an adroit balance of peaceful and discordant atmospheres.  Yet, as Moss first hinted at with the spectral Construction closer, “Empty Streets,” there are myriad pleasures to be found in the spaces not populated by vibrating strings.  On the aforementioned track, it was the saw that took up the charge of filling the void.  On Neighbors, that melodic mantle has been assumed by Moss himself, whose world-weary croon leaves behind a surprising unfettered aftertaste.

Things are generally fragmented lyrically, but the presence of a human voice lends these songs an organic bent nonetheless.  On the title track, Moss sings of “spitting out a hollow tomb” and “fighting off that devil’s appetite” while reverb-affected banjo chords conjure an exotic and spooky milieu.  “Blue Moan Blinds” is a banjo-led affair that pairs increasingly frenetic banjo playing with bleak imagery (“Little cities / big decay / pick up the bricks / stack them away”).  In what might’ve been a little bit of text painting, “Rotary” is a wide-eyed and optimistic cut whose open harmonies ambiguously flirt with major and minor tonalities while Moss addresses our habitual practice of loping through life in circles (“Move along / I’m full of fear / spin back / like a rotary dial”).  In a more clear display of juxtaposition, “Spiders on the Ceiling” fuses beautifully contemplative and tender guitar work with lyrics that chronicle the observations of a listless life (“It’s a quiet quiet evening / dad’s around the bend / grandpa’s not in the graveyard / but he’s not in his head”).

Nowhere is the Springsteen connection more obvious though than on “Desert Dogs,” where not even oblique lines like “all around dreaming / wallpaper cries” can deter the completely helpless and regretful emotions that come to the fore.  Where Bruce might’ve injected a little harmonica, we find Moss shakily whistling in unison with the melody offered by the guitar.  The storytelling is certainly less direct than what the Boss might’ve given us 30 years ago, but ominous guitar patterns and declarations to “stumble on down the ghost path” still encourage vivid allegorical associations between life’s unknowns and a desolate road that stretches to the horizon.

Neighbors doesn’t imbue Sam Moss’s already formidable musicianship with any notions of pop sensibility; the structures here are too elliptical, and the melodies are more apt to float through the ether than get lodged in your head.  What this does prove, however, is that the Berklee-trained guitarist is just as comfortable behind a mic as he is behind a six-string.  I’m already anticipating the next big move.