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An Underwater Dream: Cd Review Portland Phoenix

Fighting tooth and nail

Eric Bettencourt returns with Underwater Dream

By SAM PFEIFLE  |  April 28, 2014

In terms of economic activity, music has got to be somewhere on the list of Maine’s top 10 exports. Even if Ray LaMontagne doesn’t count.

We can clearly lay claim to Eric Bettencourt, a singer-songwriter now gigging around Austin after Portland releases of two full-lengths and two EPS, including, most recently, Weightless Embrace, a fun collection of well done covers of known and unknown songs — the “Simple Twist of Fate” is as different as could be, maybe more entertaining than the original.

He returns to town next week with Underwater Dream in tow, a new album of eight songs that sound like they’ve been chiseled from marble, wood-shedded, and revised until they’re right where Bettencourt wants them. This is a guy who cares deeply about his craft — who cares deeply in general — and it shows in everything from his couplets to the way he, Steve Drown, and Pete Morse captured the warm, earthy tones that populate this album.

Everything comes together in the perfect storm that is the title track, where Bettencourt opens with a vocal riff that shows off the development of his singing technique, which has settled somewhere between LaMontagne and Janis Joplin. He’s a high tenor, like he’s always been, but without the back-of-the-throat Kermit effect that could creep in there every once in a while. This allows the piece to get artfully nostalgic. It even made me tear up at least once (but I was pretty stoned) with the bittersweet, “We built a fire on some bones.”

As with most songs here, Bettencourt also shows off his considerable chops on the acoustic guitar, with great fingerwork that he uses to alter the song’s tempo as he breaks down into the chorus with each step of this line’s litany: “Tears they sting my eyes like broken glass, or rock, or hail.”

The chorus is highly singable, then gives way to a couple of guitars soloing alongside each other, one more wah-ed than the other, with everything perfectly rough around the sonic edges. And it all gets a good fireside embrace from Anna Lombard’s and Sara Hallie Richardson’s ethereal backing vocals, like a glow behind Bettencourt’s head.

Most of the rest of the album is more upbeat, or at least more up-tempo. Even the waltz that finishes the record, “Under a Tree,” is quick and delicate on the acoustic guitar, where Bettencourt can tell a story without needing the English language. It’s infused, too, with Lauren Hastings-Genova violin, which sits overtop Pete Genova’s thumping bass (congrats on getting hitched, kids), and then Morse chimes in with an electric guitar line. In the headphones, you might be particularly aware of guitar parts being plugged into the left and right channels.

In fact, it’s hard not to notice the construction of the album as a whole. It can add a level of enjoyment — “hey, is that a banjo on ‘Shake Us Off’?” — but there are times, as on “Weary Traveler,” where the crisp repeating phrases come off as mechanical, like you’re listening to a robot band at Disneyland, created specifically for your themepark enjoyment.

There’s a frequently intense energy that takes on different meaning, too, when you hear the words to a tune like “Shake Us Off”— is it anger that fuels Bettencourt? 

“Have you any sense of what we’ve done?” he asks in what opens as a ballad, with Morse being appropriately moody on the pedal steel. But then you notice “she” is probably the Earth, and you hear, “I’ll hold you like we were living/ In hell’s darkest ravine,” and that “there’s nothing left to destroy,” repeated with the easiest of sing-song deliveries, like the end of the world is so inevitable it isn’t even bad news. 

Is the furor with which some of these songs move actually more like fury?

Even a song like “Climbing Back,” which is full of Widespread Panic-style blues jam, has plenty of dark themes — “I learned to cry without making any sound” — like the somber side of Gram Parsons. There’s definitely something powerful behind phrasing like, “I’m wound tighter than a tornado’s tail/ She’s as stubborn as a mule for sale/ That love was better than any fairy tale/ We fought tooth and nail.”

Those are words that were worked on.

Thoughtfulness and real attention pervade Underwater Dream. If you appreciate a song’s manufacture, the way it’s written and executed, this is an album you’ll enjoy, even if it’s not necessarily in your taste wheelhouse. If it is, you’ll likely find yourself among those welcoming Bettencourt back to town at One Longfellow.

Underwater Dream | Released by Eric Bettencourt | with Adrianne Lenker + Buck Meek | at One Longfellow, in Portland | May 9 |