Fighting tooth and nail

Eric Bettencourt returns with Underwater Dream
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  April 28, 2014

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Photo credit: Roger Philips

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 three 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? 

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