If banjos aren’t your thing, then perhaps it’s best to steer clear of this one. But if you’re down for some honest-to-goodness mountain-bred banjo-picking, you might find this mostly-instrumental album a pleasant surprise.
Nathan Bowles, a North Carolina multi-instrumentalist with a king’s reputation as a session musician, has a background in both traditional old-time music and experimental ambient drone. Here, in his third solo release, these influences combine in what can only be described as the hypnotic soundtrack to a kaleidoscopic Appalachian dream sequence.
‘Whole and Cloven’ is built around Bowles’ mastery of the clawhammer banjo technique. But if that conjures up images of breakneck-speed reels and Trans Ams hustling moonshine down to Texarkana, then you’ve got the wrong idea. Bowles forgoes the Duelling Banjos mould in favour of a far more peaceful take on this oft-stereotyped instrument. Bowles has an obsessive ear for sonic expression and a perfectionist’s soul. He’s crafted an album where every note-pluck, neck-slide, harmonic and vibration is a carefully considered component. Ten minute slow-time odyssey ‘I Miss My Dog’ shows just how much can be achieved with a virtuosic banjo-man, a set of good recording mics, and a keen eye for detail. These are soundscapes you can quite literally get lost in.
That being said, it’s not all about the banjo. ‘Chiaroscuro’ is a haunting piano instrumental that demonstrates Bowles’ formidable skill as an ivory-tinkerer. It’s a bizarre, but interesting, addition to the album. ‘Gadarene Fugue’ and ‘Burnt Ends Rag’ showcase Bowles’ percussionist pedigree (he considers himself a drummer first and foremost) with some unorthodox beat-keeping approaches.
Jeffrey Cain cover ‘Moonshine is the Sunshine’, the only track where Bowles sings, is a highlight too. Bowles is no Brad Paisley, but his howlin’ home-grown vocals suit the nonsense nursery rhyme lyrics like a checked flannel shirt suits a bearded mountain man. They’re also mixed quieter than you might expect a voice track to be – the vocals aren’t the centrepiece, they’re just another colour on the canvas.
Bowles’ website describes ‘Whole and Cloven’ as ‘a stoic meditation on absence, loss, and fragmentation.’ That’s as fair a description as you’ll find of this bizarre treat. The tracks are freeform, flowing, sometimes melancholic but always profoundly beautiful. This is music to listen to whilst you’re floating on a pristine mountain lake. Where the water may be cold, but the scenery is breath-taking.
‘Whole and Cloven’ is available now on Paradise of Bachelors Records
This Nathan Bowles article was written by Matt George Lovett, a GIGsoup contributor