It’s been a prolific year for Parisian folk duo Herman Dune, which seems to be releasing records at a ferocious rate. Next Year in Zion follows the band’s two EPs and countless live dates from earlier this year, and it’s another high quality release, full of wistful songs that build on the idiosyncrasies of previous recordings. Songwriter David-Ivar Herman Dune and drummer Neman Herman Dune have taken steps toward professionalism with each release, but they’ve never lost the wide-eyed naivety that makes listening to their albums such a joy.
It’s not hard to play “spot the influence” with Herman Dune. Opening track “On a Saturday” recalls familiar touchstones such as Van Morrison and Jonathan Richman, mixed with a few mariachi horns that wouldn’t sound out of place on Love’s Forever Changes or Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. But they always manage to avoid sounding derivative, thanks largely to David-Ivar’s endearing way with words.
His songs tell gentle stories that fixate on the minutiae of life. “You asked me for a lighter and I handed you a matchbox,” he sings. “And I watched you smoke as the sky turned pink.” Imagine Leonard Cohen hopped up on Prozac and cribbing a few notes from Silver Jews frontman David Berman, and you’re close to understanding David-Ivar’s approach to his natural vocation.
Next Year in Zion was recorded live in a studio in Provence, France, and there’s a spirited sense of ease surrounding the album. It often sounds like David-Ivar simply plucked the songs out of the air, gave a few directions to his band, and committed the songs to tape. Guest players come and go, with backing vocalists the Babyskins providing some delightful backing on occasion, such as their hushed addendums to the beautiful “My Home Is Nowhere Without You.”
Occasionally David-Ivar strives to amuse as well as move. On “An Afternoon Dance Party” he rhymes “I took it as if you were crazy” with “a song Beyonce had sung for Jay-Z,” which doesn’t quite scan but is charming nevertheless. The generous stabs of brass resurface as the album progresses, and are deployed to welcoming effect on "Baby Is Afraid of Sharks” and “Lovers Are Waterproof.” The latter swims so close to Dylan’s “I Want You” that it’s practically a cover. The similarity is almost certainly not lost on David-Ivar, who used to carry around a photo of Sun Studios founder Sam Phillips when he was a kid.
By this point, after countless albums, EPs and radio sessions, you’re either deeply immersed in Herman Dune’s world or have switched off long ago. This appears to matter very little to the band, who would most likely still be performing this music regardless of how many people were listening. That’s a rare quality in these fame-hungry days, and Next Year in Zion is another singular triumph for this heroically understated band.