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about

As a solo artist or bandleader, Joshua Barton hasn't shied from preoccupations with mortality, meaning making, and spiritual fulfillment. But on "Witness," the Lansing singer/songwriter's latest release with band Seerstones, there's notably less whimsy and more weight.

Part of that has to do with a fullness of sound unheard on previous recordings, thanks to the stringband assembled to fill out Barton's acoustic arrangements. On this recording, Seerstones includes multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Peter Hochstedler, who also engineered the mostly live recording sessions, as well as Gordon Kwiatkowski, Thom McAlvey, John Voss, and Sam Copperman. Previous projects have leaned more ethereal at times, where Witness sounds intentionally world weary and mired in the physicality of thick harmonium drones, wide double-bass runs, and rich multi-part vocal harmonies.

But it's not only the instrumentation making for the change in tone. Barton has always been gifted at repurposing despair as a secret vehicle of hope, but he's never been more unflinching or willing to lock eyes with the void as he is on the first three tracks here. From the opening "Dark Side of Your Soul" through "Sardonia at Sea," Barton front loads the record with a raw-nerve, ego trip of violent fantasies, disillusioned liturgy, and self-damning proclamations, underscored by the ad infinitum final refrain of the dirge-like "I Am Not Living My Calling."

After confronting these phantoms, he turns his attention outward to accepting what is ("The Old Piano"), mourning what's been lost ("The Dog and the Buzzard"), and longing for lost ideals ("I Wanna Go Down") in the record's gentler second movement. Nothing's going to be alright, and that's going to have to be fine.

Which brings us to the closing "The Silence I Endure Each Day from God." A heartbreaking country ballad that opens with Barton's lone voice and strumming, the song first gives the impression we're actually listening to a restless crooner's midnight plea to an unfaithful deity before the barroom accompaniment kicks in, as if to say, "Grab a partner and dance. It's a lonely life, filled with our own demons, and if we've got a prayer against them, it's the same as it ever was: 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'"

--Eric Gallippo

credits

released October 20, 2016

JOSHUA BARTON: songs, vocals, acoustic guitar and bass
PETER HOCHSTEDLER: vocals, electric guitar and suitcase
GORDON KWIATKOWSKI: vocals, harmonica, ukulele
THOM MCALVEY: vocals, banjo, harmonium
JOHN VOSS: electric guitar
SAM COPPERMAN: bass
COREY KELLICUT: lap steel guitar

Produced & mixed by Peter Hochstedler
Mastered by LANDR
Photography by Tobias Walbridge
Art direction by Graham Mason

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about

Joshua Barton Lansing, Michigan

Michigan-based singer/songwriter self-releasing the sad and the sacred, with abiding, conflicting enthusiasm for lamentation, Southern gospel, American primitive guitar and the drones of shoegaze.

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Track Name: Dark Side Of Your Soul
Have you ever been to the dark side of your soul?
Have you ever been to the dark side of your soul?
Have you ever hated somebody's guts so much
You wanna take their head off, bathe in their blood?
Have you ever been to the dark side of your soul?

Have you ever been to the place where the devil dwells?
Have you ever been to the place where the devil dwells?
It's a place that you oughta know so well
As we're livin' in the sin at the gates of hell.
Have you ever been to the place where the devil dwells?

There's bloodshed, violence
Sewn into the fabric of our lives
Can't you hear your old man's advice?
Can't you hear your old man?
There's bloodshed, violence
Sewn into the fabric of our lives
Can't you hear your old man's advice?
Can't you see your old man's demise?

Have you ever just wanted to make it all go away?
Have you ever just wanted to make it all go away?
Have you ever just wanted to meet your end
And turn out your light by your hand?
Have you ever just wanted to make it all go away?

There's bloodshed, violence
Sewn into the fabric of our lives
Can't you hear your old man's advice?
Can't you hear your old man?
There's bloodshed, violence
Sewn into the fabric of our lives
Can't you hear your old man's advice?
Can't you see your old man's demise?
Track Name: I Am Not Living My Calling
I once spoke a heavenly language
I once held the flame on my tongue
But I drank from the wine of such lofty design
And that quickly the language was gone

I once played along with the angels
I played in the band of the Lord
But I guess that I fell when I sang for myself
Because suddenly I was alone

To the hills, to the hills I am going
Nothing to do but wander away
Because nothing at all can compare to the call
That I lost when I gave it away

Jesus Christ, have mercy
For I am not living my calling
Mother Mary, pray for me
For I am not living my calling

I am not living my calling, I am not living
Track Name: Sardonia At Sea
On my royal black cutter, I have taken command
Pointed port to the edge and I've struck up the band
Playing "Nearer My God" for the men who believe
The refrain will continue o'er the edge of the sea

And when I finally land in that sinking abyss
And I've seen my men's faces in every port that there is
No, the ocean won't move me, it's so blue and so plain
How it sucks up the sunset, spits it right out again

Sometimes I feel like I've read every word
Like there's no new idea, no new song to be heard
On that great day of judgment when our heads will all roll
A king can't but notice: I've seen one, I've seen all

There's no warmth in the sunlight, there's no peak in the sex
There's no heart in the darkness, there's no joy in the jest
There's no light in the fire, there's no rush in the wind
There's no touch to the feeling, there's no point in the end

There's no point in the end...
Track Name: The Old Piano
If I tell you stories, stories half remembered
Would you stay the night awake with me
Lest these olden echoes and the old piano
Stamp me down in torment through the morning

Hear them sing the gospel on the old piano
Tuneful apparitions in the pastures
Where they dove in the canal to retrieve the God-sent sow
And the family ate for many days

And the sun rises in the clearing
Shines so golden through my door
But these rays can only chase the shadows
For so long, then day is gone

Hear the children singing on the ukulele
And the smiling eyes that light the room
I can't fix these broken strings or unpack these songs I sing
But somehow they play to their design

Hear the deathly rattle at the kitchen table
All these threads are tangled up in time
So I guess I'll never know on this side of life below
Just how long this story's gonna run

And the sun rises in the clearing
Shines so golden through my door
But these rays can only chase the shadows
For so long, then day is gone
Track Name: I Wanna Go Down
Blessed is the soul who with humility goes
To the holy of holies to say
I lay my defenses at the feet of the Lord
My desires, my comfort are slain
Blessed is the soul who with no weapon to hold
Where the militarized deal out the fear
Who broken but standing takes no violent commanding
But calls out for combatants to hear

I wanna go down
Feel the depth of the sound
That is the heart of the Lord
I wanna go down

Blessed is the land, all the blood-battered sand
On the fields where we fight and we die
And the blessed are the beasts, the creation that feasts
And returns us to dust by and by
Blessed and broke, all enchanted in smoke
Are the choked who all barely can breathe
In the shadow of towers, in the grip of their power
Call aloud to the Lord for relief

I wanna go down
Feel the depth of the sound
That is the heart of the Lord
I wanna go down

Blessed are the women of whom sin is forgiven
And blessed are the men who're made well
And blessed are the wretched, the wrecked and rejected
Who've been told that they're destined for hell
Who say: damn your damnation and your predestination
All your holy condescending ideas
Because God is still calling even though I am falling
And by his grace one day I will hear

I wanna go down
Feel the depth of the sound
That is the heart of the Lord
I wanna go down

Descend to ending: submission
Not to power of man: chakra explosion
I wanna go down

I wanna go down
Feel the depth of the sound
That is the heart of the Lord
I wanna go down
Track Name: The Dog And The Buzzard
Launch yourself into green grass
Where your shadow stretches long
Where the reeds creak and crackle
Singing their sorry song
Maybe here I'll lie down heavy
Maybe here I'll lie down long
Where the real is so desperate
That I dare not sing along

You with your concertina
Playing songs I'll never learn
There's a buzzard on the steeple
Just a-waiting for his turn
And it's a turn in the story
That I wasn't counting on
But that damned old nasty buzzard
Saw it coming all along

He pictures himself swooping
And snatching up the dog
To add to his collection
That he carefully catalogs
But his mounting acquisitions
They drive him up the wall
'Cause when death comes for the buzzard
He's gonna lose it all

I let the moment hit me
Let it smack me in the teeth
I made a cross with the roots of the tree
That we buried you beneath
So here you lie down heavy
Here you lie down long
I heard a song so lonely
That I had to sing along
Track Name: The Silence I Endure Each Day From God
Every night I stare into the darkness
I search the sky looking for a sign
Some undeniable inspiration from Jesus
But each night I retire
Blind, unknowing and tired
Of the silence I endure each day from God

Unready, unright
Am I really unsound
In sackcloth and ashes
Prostrate on the ground
I just want some answers
I just want to know what I'm bound to

A band of angels falls into formation
Their holy lips upon their virgin horns
But as they play my ears can hear no music
So sad that I could cry
With every assurance denied
I can't understand this silence unbroken from God