Following a long hiatus from recording, experimental alt-country songwriter Richard Buckner was put through the wringer trying to get his 2011 album, Our Blood, out to the masses. Circumstances as bothersome as a stolen laptop and as alarming as being detained briefly for a murder investigation (it wasn't him!) held that record up for months and might have had something to do with the more streamlined, somewhat urgent approach to the songwriting on Surrounded. Putting aside the regular tool kit of guitars and pianos, Buckner wrote all nine compositions here with the uncommon instrumentation of an electronic autoharp and an octave-shifting pedal, fleshing the tunes out for recording with more familiar instrumentation. The result could definitely be seen as ambient Americana, with cloudy electronic textures filling in the usually empty spaces in his spare and lonely folk tunes. The process is especially exciting on tracks like "Foundation," where loops of backwards guitar tones and organ drones support Buckner's driving acoustic instruments and self-harmonizing. The splintered riff that opens "Mood" is similarly unexpected, serving as an ominous background for haunted electric piano chords and some of Buckner's more ghostly vocals. This meeting of ambient sonics and the more traditional folk playing that set the tone of earlier albums continues the experimental development he's been leaning toward, without going too far off the deep end. Even the sequenced nearly techno keyboard pads that push "Cut" along can't obscure the distinctive qualities that are unique to Buckner's always solitary and mysterious songwriting. This synthesis of found sound loops and songwriting chops finds its rhythm best on the standout cut "When You Tell Me How It Is." The dusty melody and Buckner's wavering voice coasting over unplaceable stringed instrument sounds and scratchy melodica passages end up sounding like a track from his 1998 classic Since given a beatless remix treatment by the Books or the Notwist. The results sound more natural than risky and the entire album finds a nice place between the direct and the obtuse.
by Fred Thomas