It’s always nice to see the sidemen get their due and 2020 has been a year of session players stepping up, especially within the realm of pedal steel — from Barry Walker to Luke Schneider, and now we can add Spencer Cullum to the list as well. Though unlike the others, Cullum isn’t bringing pedal steel to the forefront, rather he’s gathered his circle of Nashville players for an album that’s shot through with ‘70s Canyon AOR, UK prog, psych folk, and even a surprising touch of German Progressive coursing through its veins. Cullum slips from behind the bandstand to wind up an amiable, if subdued leader. Where others have tucked into Cosmic Americana and UK prog-folk with a flash, he’s ever the master of balance and shading, letting tracks simmer in their ambitions.
The impulses here swing from simple folk strains into lush works buoyed by strings, clarinet, sax and mellotron and pencer taps quite a few friends to add those touches. Sean Thompson, Luke Reynolds, Andrew Combs, Erin Rae, Annie Williams and James “Skyway Man” Wallace all pop up among the credits and their contributions help give the record definition. While he’s aiming for Matching Mole, Roy Harper, Caravan, and early Soft Machine, with so many local friends on board, the native Englishman can’t help inject just a touch of Nashville’s honeyed charms to the record as well. As the LP progresses he wanders further afield from the wooded confines of folk, letting a motorik murmur enter into view on “Dieterich Buxtehude,” and a soft jazz gauze fall over “Tombre En Morceaux.” The record does its best to embrace an out-of-time feeling, evoking an era of experimental folk that’s still reverberating today while bearing a few teethmarks of the kind of players who are pulled in for their perfectionism. It’s high concept prog from the best hired guns and while that means none of the ends are particularly frayed, I certainly enjoy its grand design.
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