The sky burial is the Tibetan tradition of placing human remains in high stone pillars, exposed in such a way that predatory and scavenger birds may help migrate the soul. There’s no burial in the sense that the body is stored underground or cremated. It’s simply returned to nature. There’s a reason Rice Cultivation Society used “sky burial” as their third album title – the band’s got death on the mind. That doesn’t mean that Sky Burial has to be another sad-bastard rock record, and the band approach it like a sky burial – a return to nature. Rice Cultivation Society is the songwriting vehicle for New York’s Derek Smith, but don’t mistake it for another bedroom project. While Smith handles the songwriting, he’s got a band of equally talented musicians backing him up. The band have been around for a few years, releasing a couple of LP’s, but Sky Burial might be their best yet. They’ve mostly traded in their garage-inspired bouts of mania, but this 10-track record’s brand of indie-folk-rock is as beautiful as it is impressive.
Sky Burial ranges from mid-90’s lo-fi alternative rock (“Honey Hide”, “Bunny in the Sun”), to some pretty stunning, crystalline indie-folk (“King Midas,” “Church of Love”), to 60’s singer-songwriter (“Fading Stars”, “You Oughtta Don’t Know”). Derek Smith comes close to writing songs that sound like Radiohead (circa The Bends), some that sound like Dan Bejar’s work as Destroyer, and some that sound like Simon & Garfunkel. Even though the tone and genre of the songs might differ, they all sound like they’re from the same band. The album’s pacing doesn’t do it any favors though – the first half of the record is stacked with its most memorable songs. The latter half of Sky Burial (after “Bears Staring at the Universe”), is good, but it feels like the band has already creatively shown you its hand by that point. There aren’t really any surprises left, and the midtempo tracks spill over the 5-minute mark without much justification.
Although Rice Cultivation Society’s influences might be is pretty diverse, Sky Burial maintains a fairly consistent attention to detail, particularly with the instrumentation. Even on the loosest tracks, the band’s music always feels very neatly arranged and organized – not a note out of place. All of Sky Burial feels pored over, with each sound meticulously recorded and mastered. As musicians, Rice Cultivation Society knock it out of the park by keeping things tasteful rather than overcomplicated or cerebral. The acoustic instrumental track “Bears Staring at the Universe” demonstrates a ridiculous penchant for musicianship on the band’s part as multiple guitars create a singular sound. The quiet, folksy opener “King Midas” interrupts its chorus with glittering and delicate electric lead-guitar. And boy oh boy, the bluesy title track has just about everybody doing something interesting.
Sky Burial doesn’t so much reward repeated listens as it rewards attentive listens. This music isn’t big on hooks or snappy lyrics, but it is incredibly, meticulously crafted. Listeners not paying attention will likely miss a lot of what makes this record good (I know from experience). There’s tons of nuance here for the audience to find, and Rice Cultivation Society doesn’t beg you to focus on it. Instead, their music stands still, allowing you to walk around it, look it up and down, and appreciate it. Fans of the Dodos and Grizzly Bear ought to find a lot here to love, but Derek Smith and company have a novel enough sound that it really doesn’t matter much if you don’t like the aforementioned bands. Sky Burial name-checks a lot of past musical moments, but it’s a record that could have only been made right now in 2013.
Purchase: Mecca Lecca Records