Listening to a gentle singer with a supple tone and clear diction can feel like being slapped, softly, by a ballerina—it's an elegant gesture that never quite has its intended impact. At times, Shawn Luby of Humble Tripe approaches this quandary, letting notes not leap from his lungs and fill the room so much as cautiously drift away and dissipate like a wisp of smoke. It's a predicament that Luby and his band tussle with on their second LP, The Giving. The situation is a blessing and a curse, as prone to reveal sterling moments of vulnerability and empathy as to feel too light to be earned. The Giving splits the difference, drawing on a wealth of well-crafted tunes that hit a sweet folk pocket. Ultimately, though, Humble Tripe sits a bit too meekly, as if kowtowing to the expectations of its name.
Produced by longtime Butchie and frequent Humble Tripe collaborator Melissa York, The Giving is a study in balance. On the lighter side, touches of singing saw, fiddle and banjo slip in with delicate ease, offering much to admire in refined timing and arrangement. It's supportive music that, because of its vocal pairing, can feel deflated and vacant. When they buttress that soft core with slightly harder edges, Humble Tripe stuns. The moments when Luby's voice cracks; the feint of a coda on "Anchors" that flips into a confident build; the charge of "Carnival Song"; the times York plies a bit of her punk past, forcing Luby to loosen his grip on the song—those are aha moments.
In the end, the difference appears to be conviction: When Luby's settling scores, comforting a lover or admitting that "I shouldn't ask you to stay, but I'll probably try," he has you cornered, breathless, rapt. It's more than pretty or nice, a soft slap from a ballerina. It's a punch of experience—and, at best, a treasure.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ambition and effect."