Embarrassing confession time: I lost the "Sounds of Autumn" schedule when my last laptop died a few weeks ago, and I didn't quite commit weeks five and six to memory. After rummaging through my "to be reviewed" pile, I quickly pulled together four nice, autumnal albums to cover over the next two weeks. This week's post is dedicated to the lovely, Minnesota-based Soft Abuse Records.
I have been known to do regular worship at the altar of prolific multi-instrumentalist Steven R. Smith. An integral member of the Jewelled Antler Collective, a personal favorite and constant source of inspiration, Smith's broad discography (Hala Strana, Thuja, Ulaan Khol, Mirza, et cetera) is an intense dissection of folk-based music, performing the genre at both its most unrecognizable and skeletal. Smith's most recent outings under the name Ulaan Khol have been some of the most impressive psychedelic rock performances this side of the '70s. Big guitars, lots of pedals, thundering drums, and tape hiss...yeah, it's all there. Partially sharing in name, I'm led to believe Ulaan Markhor, Smith's latest pet project, has at least a little bit to do with the still-active Ulaan Khol, effectively splitting the Ulaan moniker in half.
At face value, the link between Ulaan Khol and Markhor is undeniable: the heavily-effected guitar work, dense atmospheres, and Middle Eastern-influenced melodies...it's all there, and yet Smith has done an excellent job keeping these projects apart. Eschewing its sister project's at times near-doom metal heaviness, Ulaan Markhor is a much softer affair. Studded with acoustic guitars, sweeping loops, and a nice and solid, albeit quiet, guitar crunch, these meandering jams show a much more standard side of the Ulaan spectrum, as far as structure goes, but I'm not sure if the Markhor is as poppy as it's billed. Yes, it is nice and, sure, there are some catchy parts, but psychedelia was never really about the catchy melody, rather the overall texture and groove, both of which Ulaan Markhor definitely possesses.
Though Ulaan Markhor is enjoyable, especially to those who enjoy Mr. Smith's previous work as much as I have, I do have one chief complaint towards this debut: while Ulaan Khol sticks to my ribs like a rich, expensive dinner at some fancy restaurant, Markhor doesn't feel the same way. Granted, it is a different project, but, given the grand scope and care put into Ulaan Khol, Ulaan Markhor seems more like an afterthought or even a random group of ideas which were meant for Ulaan Khol but never really fit. The ideas are good, some even have jawdropping moments, but, overall, it doesn't have a super "complete" feel to it. I still like it, but that's because I'm a Steven R. Smith fanboy. If you like him too, then, by all means, get this album. You will love it. Otherwise, it's worth at least a listen or two on Smith's personal Bandcamp page.
It's high time I reviewed a bluegrass album. The last time I discussed the music of the mountains was in my review of the latest Panopticon album, but that was mostly a metal album with the occasional bluegrass-inspired section and a few renditions of old coalminer songs. Though it was nice to discuss the proliferation of an American folk style in a metallic sphere, I've been dying to talk about the real deal, and, boy howdy, solo banjo artist Nathan Bowles lays down a mean slab of clawhammer-styled banjo.
Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking to yourself WHAT DOES JON MEAN BY "CLAWHAMMER"? Well, my friends, not only is "clawhammer" a tool in your garage, it's also a banjo performance technique (and, arguably, a genre within itself). A rhythmically dictated technique, clawhammer style involves the performer playing the banjo with his hand put in a claw formation, much like the American Sign Language letter "E," and literally brushing your fingernails on/hitting the strings, creating both a rhythm section (the thump of your hand hitting the strings) and a melody section (the stuff you do on the fretboard) without the aid of a backing band. True to the style in every aspect, Nathan Bowles, who has lent his talents to the late great Jack Rose as well as his own projects Pelt and the old-timey Black Twig Pickers, armed with his open-backed banjo, emulates the old sounds of the Ozarks and Appalachian hills.
Of course, being a Soft Abuse artist, Bowles needs to have some sort of experimental flair, which manifests itself as the album progresses. Suddenly, the mountain romp slows down to a slow, thoughtful crawl and Bowles begins to (gasp) bow his banjo, resulting in a mournful, metallic groan. The strangeness begins to fade as Bowles resumes the clawhammer approach, though, in the case of "Beans," he is accompanied with hand drums.
There isn't a doubt in my mind that Nathan Bowles is a formidable and talented banjo player, as this has been more than proven with his first solo work A Bottle, A Buckeye. The banjo really gets a bad rep, often bringing about thoughts of toothless old codgers on their porch, playing "obnoxious" bluegrass between violent trips to the spitoon. If only people looked past the cartoonish connotation and saw the banjo's true potential as Bowles has so thoughtfully reiterated through this lovely collection of original songs and reinterpreted classics. The world has much to learn about American folk music, and Nathan Bowles is the perfect teacher.
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