Ringo Starr. Tommy Lee. Phil Collins. The rock record books bode poorly for drummers-turned-singers, with the luckiest going on to be merely forgettable (Queen’s Roger Taylor gave us a few albums that have been, thankfully, lost to history) and the worst using the success of their more popular outfit to inflict career-long embarrassments on the masses. There are odd exceptions (Dave Grohl manages a few memorable songs on each Foo Figthers album, Kiss’s Peter Criss co-wrote and sang “Beth”), but for the most part, drummers are kept at the back of the stage for good reason. A mistrust of drummers is pretty much all one has to go on when approaching S. Carey’s All We Grow, since he gives us the album following a short tenure behind the pads for Bon Iver, a project guided so meticulously by founder Justin Vernon that any of his collaborators are pretty much unknown quantities.
So, you could be forgiven for going in with a hunch that Carey’s debut might sound somewhere between “a lot” and “exactly” like the last Bon Iver EP. The album cover reinforces that notion, all pretty and pastoral, the type of Waldenesque bucolia so central to the aesthetic of indie folk’s emoting woodsmen. Song titles like “In the Dirt” and “In the Stream” evoke the same, and the first song, “Move,” doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from very similar works by the likes of Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine.
Thankfully, later cuts find Carey indulging slightly more eclectic tastes. “Rothko Fields” is an instrumental, minimally composed for french horn, bassoon, and flute. It consists mostly of long, sustained tones adorned with gentle percussion, and in that manner bears more resemblance to Matthew Cooper’s work as Eluvium, or even Austin drone auteurs Stars of Lid, than to anyone likely to be found strumming at the next Bonaroo. The title track complements a similarly understated backing track with a variety of sonic flourishes, some pedestrian (acoustic guitar and wordless harmonies are staples of this genre), others quite a lot more innovative (the crackles of white noise that crop up at the three-minute mark suggest campfire music a la John Cage or Sonic Youth).
But where those tracks show Carey developing a distinctive voice, elsewhere he succumbs to mere repetition of his influences. It’s not Justin Vernon, but Sufjan Stevens who looms largest over the album’s first half—the pianos, handclaps, and trilling flutes of “We Fell” and “Dirt” occupying a musical terrain that sits pretty nicely between that songwriter’s minimal Seven Swans and his maximal Illinois. But Carey’s music is quite beautiful even when it’s derivative, and unless one esteems novelty over all other virtues, there’s no good reason to skip through those tracks.
Or, for that matter, any of the songs on All We Grow. The familiarity of the material here doesn’t make it less evocative or well-arranged, and while one might wish that Carey’s debts to artists like Stevens and Mark Kozelek were less transparent, it would take a pretty coldhearted critic to say that a track like “Broken,” the album’s majestic closer, is any less moving on those grounds. Carey almost certainly has a better album in him, but as a 40-minute introduction to the man behind the drumkit, this one is an assured and undemanding success.