“Avuncular” is one of those words that you didn’t know you needed until you learned what they meant, and then you’re just itching to use it, waiting for the right opportunity to drop it into a conversation. Derek Senn didn’t have to wait too long on his latest album of that title, introducing the figure of uncle Mike in the very first line of the very first song. It tells the story of an American coming of age that feels personal and universal at the same time.
It sets the tone nicely for what’s to come, with Senn’s lyrics capturing ‘the general in the particular’ with creative panache. You’d struggle to find a single cliché or trope in the subject matter. From a surprisingly warm ode to Monica Lewinsky, to somehow combining home improvement with sexual innuendo (‘Tongue and Groove’), the songs often start with a seemingly ridiculous premise, only to elicit a smile of recognition by the time they’re over.
The words match Senn’s voice well, too. He switches between singing and reciting, evoking other rambling storytellers, somewhere between Tom Petty and Lou Reed.
Musically, the album combines traditional Americana fare (acoustic guitar with twangy dobro and pedal steel parts) with more unusual flavours of soft Moog synths and dramatic thunder rolls of timpani (that’s kettle drums, for you and me). The synths are played by John Vanderslice, who was also solely responsible for the production, from engineering to mixing. He did a stellar job, doing particular justice to Jason Slota’s drumming that sounds dynamic yet “free range organic”.
If you feel like learning a lesson or two from a, well, avuncular character’s life stories, give Derek Senn and uncle Mike a call.