Signed to Sub Pop on the strength of an unsolicited demo, Daniel Martin Moore is a singer, pianist, guitarist and songwriter who is already two albums into a rather curious catalogue. His first album, Dear Companion, was written with Ben Sollee last year and tackled environmentally destructive mining techniques in Kentucky. Now he follows it up with a solo record which turns out to be gospel, but not as we know it.
Moore, in a light, reflective baritone, sings a combination of covers and his own tunes. All are firmly in the gospel tradition which lay at the heart of his boyhood Kentucky Sundays. But In the Cool of the Day places these celebratory songs in a new light, doing without backing choruses and joyful instrumentation, instead playing them as though they were dark folk ballads. The result is a sound much more like Bon Iver than Mahalia Jackson. Moore’s voice is backed by ‘an ancient piano’, bluegrass banjo, mandolin, an occasional organ and a distinctive double bass which pops up throughout. But the tone is stripped back, reflective and highly ambiguous.
Daniel Martin Moore’s accompanying press release fills us in on his intention to create ‘a fresh take on “gospel” music’ and claims that God spoke to him through the bass notes of his piano and said “make this an album for your family.” Who knows what ‘an album for the family’ means, but In the Cool of the Day is certainly not filled with happy songs to sing with the children. Much of this record comes across as sinister, threatening and downright weird, and it’s far from clear whether this is how Moore meant it.
For example, Moore’s lugubrious vocals on ‘Softly and Tenderly’ at the midpoint of the record whisper ‘Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me’, ‘Come home, come home’. The sotto voce male backing vocals seem to have been borrowed from ‘Blue Velvet’, and the song becomes increasing sinister as Moore asks ‘Why must we tarry when Jesus is waiting, waiting for you and for me.’ Not merely a song about death, it hints strongly that the singer is seriously considering dispatching himself along the highway to heaven. Moore, intentionally or otherwise, undermines the entire concept of Gospel music by focussing on the words, which dissolve under his scrutiny and reform, yielding up meanings that are far from reassuring.
‘Closer Walk With Thee’ has a tinkling, music-box sound and a great deal of insistence on the ‘walk’ but no information on the destination, which you feel probably ends with a long, long fall. The title song is positively hallucinatory, with just a piano, playing quiet as a mouse, and Moore crooning softly ‘Do you like my garden so green?’ He quotes from a conversation with ‘My Lord’, who tells him ‘This earth is a garden, the garden of my mind’, triggering a nagging and inappropriate association with ‘Inna-Gadda-Vida’ at least in the garden of this reviewer’s mind. If you’re not spooked by it, there’s a strong temptation to giggle at such po-faced music. However, at their best these delicate songs have an eerie beauty which is not completely undermined by disconcerting death cult vibes.
The songs that Moore himself has written, of which there are six, are unfortunately not the strongest tracks on the album. The best is perhaps ‘O My Soul’ which delivers a passable imitation of the traditional songs covered elsewhere, and is also significantly more upbeat than most of the tracks. Its slightly increased tempo proves something of a relief in an album which is seriously lacking in light and shade, as slow, measured song follows slow, measured song. The second half, an instrumental boogie with a quivering organ lurking in the corner is probably the most fun on the whole record. By contract the final track, ‘Set Things Aright’, is not only burdened with a Mary Poppins chorus – “A long day needs a good night to set things aright” – but drags its melody reluctantly across a long three minutes.
At a few points on In the Cool of the Day it is possible to understand Sub Pop’s rationale for signing Moore. He is a confident singer with a fine voice, and there is a streak of disconcerting Southern strangeness in his music which could fit alongside stablemates like Coco Rosie. However, much of the album is frankly rather dull, and too lacking in entertainment value to please even those seeking traditional, wholesome, God-fearing fun for all the family.