Jacob Morris is a cellist. He has contributed backing instrumentation to dozens of albums from Athens, GA alumni, many from bands operating under the Elephant 6 umbrella, as well as other artists such as Ham1, Vic Chesnutt, Liz Durrett, and Patterson Hood, whom he played cello for on a recent tour. But from the feel of Morris’ debut record, the rustic and relaxed Moths, Morris has more in common musically with Hood and Durrett than with any of his psych-popper E6 peers. His debut is sprinkled with the usual typecast characters and bucolic landscapes that inhabit a number of southern-affected records, but there’s some hesitancy in labeling Moths country because the music feels so varied and somewhat separate from this casually thrown tag. The album feels warm and inclusive one moment and distant and rough-hewn the next, the songs seeming to develop from some simple wooden porch sing-a-long into Morris’ idea of a traveling rural revue.
Morris cribs some of the best parts from indie twang artists like Ryan Adams and 16 Horsepower and manages to fit them together seamlessly. As generic a title as “singer-songwriter” can be at times (it’s practically the go-to label for any artist who plays an acoustic guitar), it fits Morris perfectly as these songs feel drawn from the inside out and bitterly personal. Curiously, the hesitation that can plague many singers’ debut records is patently absent on Moths. The fully formed personality and clear intent on display here—even apart from the immaculately realized atmosphere—makes this one of the more intriguing debuts in recent memory. He may not be doing anything revolutionary with these 13 songs, but you’d be hard pressed to find another artist so intent on preserving and sharing his own slice of Americana. And yeah, I hate that particular label as much as anyone but it fits this album perfectly. Moths feels very much informed of the folk and country music history that America has cultivated in the past century. It owes a debt that it seems intent on repaying.
The record throws in some diverse instrumentation occasionally, most noticeably his affecting cello, but the heart and soul of Moths lies with Morris’ confident vocals and acoustic guitar, which can sound like the calm before a storm one second and a long, dark stretch of country road the next. Opening track “Sidewind” begins with the lines “It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen in love/it’s been so long since I’ve seen the stars falling down on me,” so we’re immediately treading familiar ground, but Morris imbues these identifiable sentiments with a persistant optimism that makes them seem sincere rather than just the whining of some mopey kid who can’t get a girl. They’re heartfelt and sincere and we’re on Morris’ side before we’ve gotten 20 seconds into the album.
“Flowers (Myrtle)” veers off into countrified-Nick Drake territory, while “Spider” latches onto the gothic musings of 16 Horsepower for inspiration. They’re simple, quietly affecting songs that wisely understand a straightforward approach to these deep-seated emotions can sometimes be as powerful as an all-out assault on the senses. Tracks like “Lost Twilight” and “Dusty” feel far more fleshed out, with the backing musicians riding a strong country-folk rhythm and Morris’ cello playing an integral part in maintaining the dreamlike countryside backdrop. With clarinet and electric guitar trading off bridge duty, “Wet Cigarette” seems almost overly fey and prone to critical dismissal—the song is initially a series of descriptions of women, or possibly one particularly exotic woman. But this lightheartedness and superficial shallowness actually masks a resignation and disconnect that works against our already set expectations, as Morris goes through a laundry list of physical preferences and affections before admitting that “I’ve got that Andalusian ache/the kind of eyes you don’t like to watch break/and my soul is full of the finest ferns you could ever watch grow let alone watch burn/as you and I have learned.”
The tail end of the record continues Morris’ homespun musings and detours into the decidedly rustic avenues of his Nick Drake-meets-Whiskeytown aesthetic, and though these songs don’t necessarily add much more to the proceedings in the way of sonic variety, they are more than capable of sheltering Morris’ lived-in arrangements and road-worn vocals. “Glass” manages to wring a memorable melody from its tried-and-true approach to country-folk, and the deliberate acousticism and bare-bones narrative of “Landscapes” is helped along by the thumping percussion and funereal organ flourishes.
So what does it matter that we have another wonderfully agreeable folk record that, despite its sometimes homogenous country façade, manages to successfully differentiate itself from the mass of like-minded artists? Well, if you’re content to spin your (probably) already well-worn copies of the latest releases from Angel Olsen and Jessica Pratt and don’t feel a need to indulge in the bucolic songs of another singer wielding an acoustic guitar, then Moths is probably going to seem a bit superfluous. But to casually toss aside this record is to deny its inherent reciprocity and sharp need for companionship. These songs do have a need to be shared—akin to some communal sing-a-long around a roaring fire, with the night baring its teeth, but keeping just to the fringes of the firelight. While a few songs here do feel somewhat interchangeable, Moths never becomes dull or boring and finds Morris developing a unique voice of his own outside of his extensive session work. For an artist so entrenched in familiarity, the fact that Morris maintains such a distinct creative direction is a testament to his abilities as a musician. Moths may be his debut, but it feels much older and far more confident than it has any right to be, and in that regard, Morris is able to put a good deal of distance between himself and his peers. While some artists are content to merely put on the mantle of credibility for a song or two, Morris never feels less than genuine and his songs never feel less than completely honest. Who would have guessed that this kind of candid authenticity would sound so refreshing?