Amen Dunes’ Love was an ambitious album that cobbled together the talents of some sixteen musicians over a year and a half in five different studios. Consequently, a lot of material hit the cutting room floor. Their forthcoming Cowboy Worship EP compiles some of the accrued remains, but these are by no means cast-off failures.
Damon McMahon, confessional songwriter who is Amen Dunes, called his strain of elegiac psychedelic folk “cowboy worship,” aptly characterizing the mournful reverence of his sound. While the sincerity is unvarnished, these fragments are by no means plain. They tremble with a deliberate, unhurried force that persuasively envelops even the most jaundiced audiophile.
We begin with a new version of “I Know Myself,” and I don’t doubt that McMahon has paid heed to the Delphic oracle’s admonition. Gentle strumming accompanies a not-quite-twangy voice with a hint of vibrato, luring the listener into a trace, the elements repetitive but not boring. The EP interpretation isn’t as clean as Love’s Pet Sounds-y version, but it offers a more haunting atmosphere that I found I preferred.
The star of this EP is the cover of This Mortal Coil’s version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. Intense, open, and intimate, this reading is less assertive than Buckley and replaces TMC’s synthesizers with a loop of guitar. The sensation is simultaneously as organic as the original and as atmospheric as the cover. McMahon’s naked delivery shudders with vulnerability, his mouth so splittle-filled and slobbery that one envisions frothy flecks striking the microphone.
A new version of “I Can’t Dig It” has a foreground of piano coursing above a clacking metronomic beat and a lingering backing vocal. The majority of the song is a prolonged Yankee Hotel Foxtrot freakout, but lacks the rangy garage-rock quality present on Love. The EP’s “Green Eyes” retains the initial effort’s gloom, but is fuzzier, with more prominent bells and tinkling piano. It’s post-folk jazz orchestrated by Syd Barrett’s ghost.
With “Lezzy Head Burial,” we’re back to the tender guitar, an austere contrast to the wild maximalism to which we’ve been subjected. Subtle heartbeats pulse through and anchor the song, and a sandpapery rustle flows throughout. Album title track “Love” gets a makeover, piano in the forefront softly illuminating the twilit vocals. The track captures the bruised melancholy of a paramour surrendered to another: “now that you’re not here/He relies on his lonesome sound.”
All told, “Cowboy Worship” is a slow burning build that glides into a gentle climax. The whole thing unfurls like a prayer, not quite forlorn, but clearly plaintive. Though it’ll likely be dismissed as “Love’s” leftovers, honest attention will reward fans with new constructions of McMahon’s beleaguered devotion to recording the pangs of a heart being knit back together.
Cowboy Worship is out via Sacred Bones on January 19th