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Dear Nora - Skulls Example Music Album Reviews

Dear Nora - Skulls Example Music Album Reviews

Katy Davidson’s indie-folk project returns on an album that mines philosophical poetry from moments when ancient natural wonders meet modern technology.

Katy Davidson retreats into the wilderness to find inspiration. But the Dear Nora songwriter and frontperson doesn’t seem to seek solace as much as perspective in nature. In their songs, physical distance from civilization becomes a way of discerning the absurdity of day-to-day life.

On one such sojourn, in 2003, the band returned to a childhood home of Davidson’s in the Arizona desert and made a masterpiece, Mountain Rock, that reshaped the landscape of their songs. An indie-pop group founded by a trio of college classmates in late-‘90s Portland, Dear Nora were suddenly issuing heavy folk ruminations from the middle of nowhere, instead of drowsy sing-alongs recorded in a dorm room. After a few more releases, Davidson retired the band. In the intervening decade, they recorded as Key Losers, played in other bands, and launched a career as a commercial music producer. But a 2017 reissue of Mountain Rock generated so much interest in Dear Nora that Davidson revived the act and released Skulls Example, a collection of songs written over the course of nearly eight years.

The album is of a piece with Mountain Rock in the sense that it feels out-there both in place and in mindset; Skulls Example is a Mexican travelogue filled with philosophical poetry about the natural world. Davidson favors surprising juxtapositions, images of transformation, and snapshots that highlight the absurdity of scenes, places, and contemporary existence in general, often considering the ancient and timeless within the same songs that capture the technology-driven frenzy of 2018. On the title track, they’re struck by the blasphemy of a modern church built atop ancient ruins; then, they move on to recounting a trivial faux pas in which they were reprimanded for taking a picture of a picture. The album is rich with observations of nature’s majesty—there are glaciers, cacti, thunderstorms, sunsets—but punctuated by nagging dread of the technology that comes along on these journeys: cell-phone cameras, WiFi, GPS. “I always know the time/Because I belong to the grid,” Davidson sings on “Black Truck.”

Skulls Example floats the tantalizing promise of a road trip, then weighs down the getaway car with the strange details of late capitalism. “Sponsored by PT Cruiser, and I’m driving to who knows where,” Davidson sings with a dreamy sigh on the psychedelic surf-rock track “Sunset on Humanity,” in which they watch the cacti breeze by while casually contemplating death and human extinction. On “Ancient Plain,” they flee the city but find that the empty road is a treadmill more than an escape route. Out of obligation or loneliness, they strike up a conversation with the staff at a strip-mall Starbucks and dip into a small-town bar where TVs no one is watching are all playing “Friends.” Davidson’s awareness of geologic time enhances the song’s sense of absurdism; they watch “thunder crash” on an “ancient plain” as technology crashes the serenity of nature. “Worship the Cactus” sounds both goofy and existential, a chronicle of mezcal, privileged guilt, and natural wonder. Davidson invokes the hazy romanticism of a vacation, then washes it away with a cynical shrug: “Expensive experience/We could leave home less.”

Dear Nora’s music remains as minimal as ever, even as the project’s new incarnation trades Davidson’s original bandmates for three studio musicians who help them stretch the limits of their sound. Although many tracks hover within their old, reverb-drenched wheelhouse, there are also a few playful pop experiments in the mix. “Antidote for Mindlessness” is like a slow-burning Prince song, complete with dramatic guitar noodling and stoner revelations: “All this everything in one world/All this world in every detail.”

While that innovation is welcome, some of the prettiest songs on Skulls Example stick to the old Dear Nora formula: short, urgent odes to love and relationships that brim with observational non sequiturs. Shrouded in electric-guitar flutters and little else, “New to Me” is an airy tale of falling in love over the course of a weekend, with Davidson feeling giddy enough in new-found intimacy to hole up indoors while the summer hums along outside. The track harkens back to the gushing emotions of Dear Nora’s earliest songs, its intensity a counterpoint to the position of philosophical—and technological—distance Davidson assumes elsewhere on the album. Now that they’re older, the empty page is luring them into ancient places more often than impulsive trysts. It’s as though Davidson has led us into Plato’s Cave, activated the flashlight app on their phone, elbowed us in the ribs, and said, “Hey, get a load of this.”

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