Album Review: Kevin Devine – Bulldozer/Bubblegum




Kevin Devine is going it alone these days. Not musically, so much, as he’s never short of collaborators to tag in and out of his various efforts. But, in just about every other respect, he’s operating largely as a one-man operation. He’s releasing his own music through his newly-minted Devinyl Records imprint, crowdsourcing via Kickstarter to fund the release of his records, and even doing the lion’s share of the legwork on the promotional front. You know, because the life of a working musician isn’t busy enough.

But, lest you thought the singer would be straining under the weight of his newfound role of songwriter/touring musician/label head/PR guy, Devine seemingly couldn’t be more reenergized by the entire process, so much so that the fruits of his fundraising allowed for not one, but two new records, each one tailored to decidedly different sides of Devine’s punchy pop rock personality.

“I might be someone who is uniquely positioned to do it, since I have a few pretty distinct iterations of my musical personality,” Devine says of his decision to parse his new material out over two separate recordings. It’s an accurate statement coming from a songwriter with a firm grip on the two potentially pejorative strains of power pop, that of the sweetly sentimental singer/songwriter and the rock star with a noisy taste for flavorful hooks. Devine’s music dips its toes in both waters, and he’s never been content to overtly favor one over the other.

Nor does he feel like he has to. Hence, we have Bulldozer and Bubblegum, two records with their own feel and identity that together paint a portrait of the artist with little compromise. But, don’t be fooled by the titles. Ironically enough, the tough-sounding Bulldozer gives in to Devine’s more streamlined pop inclinations. Backed by members of countrified alt poppers Everest, Devine and his backing Goddamn Band shape-shift their way through the pop rock spectrum, offering up acoustic ballads (“From Here”, “For Eugene”), atmospheric alt rock (“Couldn’t Be Happier”, “Matter of Time”), Beatles-esque pop jaunts (“The Worm in Every”), and hard-driving guitar rock (“She Can See Me”). The reference points are deliberate, with Devine citing Neil Young (Zuma and On The Beach, to be precise), Elliott Smith, Nebraska-era Springsteen, and Teenage Fanclub as sources for the record’s inspiration. It’s quite the grab bag of influences, but Devine makes good use of the sonic sprawl and everything plays nice together.

But, if Bulldozer plays the part of mature older brother, Bubblegum, produced by Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, is the snot-nosed middle child crying out loudly for attention. In part two of his musical juggling act, Devine strips away much of the polish and pop finesse boasted on Bulldozer, allowing for a less deliberate sound that gets by on scruffy volume and youthful exuberance. “Nobel Prize” opens with the tinny, lo-fi cadence of a lost Guided By Voices track before evolving into the spirited guitar pop terrain of Matthew Sweet and Nada Surf. That’s largely the course that Bubblegum navigates, striking a mood that’s noticeably lighter than its more introspective counterpart. Even when the record bites a little harder on tracks like the politically charged “Fiscal Cliff”, or the Nirvana-inspired rendition of “She Can See Me”, there’s an energy to Bubblegum that allows for endless fun, even when the band furrows its brow in spots.

Devine’s take? “I actually think they kind of yin and yang together pretty well,” he opines. In the end, it’s hard to argue. One hand washes the other, with the sugary, Pixy Stix energy of Bubblegum complementing Bulldozer’s weightier, subdued headspace. And, that’s the fun of it. For the first time, Devine is giving in to all of his artistic urges and affording both halves of his music the space to run wild in their own territories. It’s a lot to digest, but rather than let his thoughtful and playful sides fight it out, the singer wisely gives both styles room to breathe and stretch out on their own. Why settle for one or the other when both deliver the goods? Fortunately, Devine couldn’t think of a good reason to do so.

Essential Tracks: “From Here” (Bulldozer), “She Can See Me” (Bulldozer), and “Noble Prize” (Bubblegum)