Last year, ANTI- reissued Sean Rowe’s 2009 Magic, and now comes his first recording created in the spotlight of that album’s success. The Salesman and the Shark makes subtle use of the opportunities that have been afforded him. While the dozen songs are built on the same solid foundations, the arrangements sport chorus vocals that are utilized to sweeten the text, but also as wordless flourishes. Strings, small combo instrumentation and a few modernist rhythmic beds entwine with an organic certainty. Again, it is Rowe’s rich baritone that exerts a magnetic pull throughout. His delivery brings to mind Greg Brown, not just due to a shared vocal range, but because Rowe too does not fit easily into categories. The carefully hewn narratives present as folklike, but the true emotional heart of the writing and delivery is blues-based (in the more elliptical form of its acoustic origins, rather than the careful concentrics of electric Chicago). Rowe is especially evocative when reaching into his upper register, leaving his relaxed baritone for a gently strained tenor that underscores the emotional bearing at hand.
The songs are rich with small details, glimpsed as resonant phrases that slowly assemble into a whole—and even then, only if desired. This is a work that does not impose a dramatic arc, allowing one to luxuriate in potently unresolved mystery. The Salesman and the Shark also gets high marks for the full album experience it is. Judiciously sequenced, the quieter nature of the set’s first three songs gives way to the angularly stoked “Joe’s Cult,” only to retreat back to the intimacy of three more, and then another bolt across the open prairie with “Horses.”
Tethered to the earth, rather than the rolling sea of popular music’s current appetites, Sean Rowe has created one of the finest albums of the year.