There's a lot to recommend Duck Kee Sessions, Schooner's third EP and fifth release. Recorded in Mebane with Jerry Kee, these six songs are available only through Cy Tunes, the MP3 Web store established in 2008 to raise funds for the late Cy Rawls. Rawls died in October 2008 of a brain tumor. He was perhaps the ultimate Triangle music fan, often showing up at multiple shows in one night or arriving, unannounced, at gigs by locals up and down the East Coast. So Schooner's selling these tracks only for his charity, and donating every bit of the insultingly low five-dollar tag to the Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University, which cared for the insurance-less Rawls. The Chapel Hill quartet then asked dozens of local artists and musicians to create "covers" for the music—pieces of art inscribed with a download code that they could sell at shows. It's a noble and unique project, if nothing else.
Turns out, it's a spectacular one, too. That five-dollar price tag is insultingly low because this is more than an archive dump for Schooner or a chance to empty old notebooks before advancing to new material. Rather, this is the best, most balanced material by Schooner yet, a fantastic pop collection that's catchier than the rest of their discography and more expansive, too. There's a ukulele tune that builds into a toughened bubblegum gem and a xylophone jingle that springs over growling field recordings. And, out of the gates, there's "Feel Better," the edgiest and most memorable rock tune Schooner has put to tape since "My Friend's Band," the first song on its first record, back in 2004. That's a lot to accomplish in 17 minutes.
Sonically, lyrically and structurally, Schooner supplies a perfect mix of apathy and anguish to these songs, and there's no better conduit for such than the voice of Reid Johnson. During the quirky country drifter "Fortuition," for instance, he surveys the state of an uncertain relationship above a steady acoustic guitar and a muted percussion section: "How many people do you think that you bring to this bed tonight? I know you cannot be sure, but can you put this in the light," he sings, the weariness dragging through his voice like he's looking for hope through failing eyelids.
And don't take the pedal steel moan and the sonorous coos that form the base of "Maybe We Lose" as signs of contentment. The waltz is written like a continuation of Built to Spill's "You Were Right," in which Doug Martsch lifted lines from the most totemic rock songs—"Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone," or "You can't always get what you want"—to establish his place in a continuum of misery. Instead, Johnson inverts clichés to do the same, singing, "Maybe you never can win" and "Maybe it never makes sense." His sister, keyboardist Kathryn Johnson, and his girlfriend, bassist Maria Albani, chase each of these lines with airy harmonies, like muses teasing the sounds of his tired sentiment. That's to say it's bittersweet, much like this stellar EP, made for a lost friend.
Duck Kee Sessions is for sale at cytunes.org now, but Schooner throws a release party for the EP at The Pinhook Friday, Feb. 19, at 9 p.m. Veelee, Erie Choir and the comedy troupe The Popular Kids open. Cover is $5.