The most memorable feature of Christian Cuff’s 2008 release “Silo” is its engineering. It’s a small stroke, and one that many otherwise well-intentioned artists run right by in the interest of pursuing a more homogenized sound.

On the gruff songwriter’s latest, “Chalkboard,” the microphone placement again catches every squeaky fret motion for an honest guitar sound. The rest of the arrangement doesn’t suffer for it either, as sandy timbres abound. Shakers, upright bass and salty ride cymbals form a core unit that cruises on its own and barely benefits from embellishment.

But embellishment was precisely what Cuff was after when he tapped members of the New Hampshire Philharmonic to add layers of moody strings to the effort. Cuff must have known that outsourcing orchestration can result in a return untrue to the soul of a song when he worked with bassist Joey Pierog to design all the swells himself. The calculated risk works. Look no further than the brooding opener, “South,” or the plaintive string companion in “On and Over.”

Cuff is just one admirer of Damien Rice in a town full of them, but he happens to come the closest to the lonely passion that sad son of Ireland possesses. His low rumble blends a Calexico dusty desert husk with a pinch of Dave Matthew’s inflection, and it’s a worthy ringleader throughout. Good thing, too — it’d be a nice afternoon spent just hearing the strings, winds and acoustic band making mischievous instrumentals.

Cuff, like Matthews, sometimes runs the risk of too much grandeur for his little outfit (careful with those timpani in “War”) but, casting about, he has developed a confidence as a writer so that he’s no longer confined to the rustic “Silo”-era barnyard. “Chalkboard,” in fact, is often found slinking about rainy urban alleys in jazz-inflected cuts like “Hobo Island” or the muted-horn title track.

It’s a less predictable, ultimately more interesting turn for an already strengthening voice.


Mike Olcott is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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