Posts Tagged ‘Cosmic Country’

SUSS

Since December warrants looking back at the year, I have to say in trawling through my personal listening and buying habits of the year, no genre dominated my headspace more than that of ambient country. The space carved out for the sound has been fringe for the last couple of years, but in tandem with a recent rise in Cosmic Americana, the sister sounds of pedal steel and synth float have become more and more prevalent. Or maybe my compass just got permanently shifted, who knows? Still, in a year spent searching out serenity that doesn’t become background mush, the genre is as good as it gets and it’s lucky for us all that one of the genre’s greats, SUSS have yet another offering as 2020 clambers to a close.

The band’s High Line hit me hard last year, and Promise doesn’t disappoint as a similarly-minded follow up. The band builds sprawling sonic landscapes that set the contrast high but fill in subtle details in their twilight meditations with curls of synth smoke and the palpable creek of wildlife settling within the hushed valleys of their songs. Under the blinking high tension wire lights, the band finds a patient pace that’s colored in nicely with buzzing guitars and a pedal steel shimmer that supplants the instruments usual amber glow with a silvered hue of moonlight. The whole record feels like finally being able to exhale after a day of holding it tight in the chest. In a crop of country outliers that excel in shivers (see: Barry Walker Jr, Bobby Lee, Luke Schneider, John Jeffrey) SUSS prove that they’re still innovators of a sound that’s been their engine all along. Absolutely an essential 2020 release.




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Cory Hanson – “Paper Fog”

Looks like Wand frontman Cory Hanson is taking another trek down the solo troubadour route and while the first taste of the album, “Paper Fog,” sounds a bit sunnier than his last outing, its still a more delicate side of Hanson. This one slides a bit closer to what Wand were laying down on their last album proper, though Cory has shaded in the edges with a nice dose of country-psych trappings bolstering a melancholy strummer with some amber slide work, fuzz breakdowns, and yearning synths. The new album Pale Hose Rider arrives in hand March 12th, though I’m sure we’ll hear a bit more from this one before then. Check out the desert delirium video for the track above.

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Beachwood Sparks – S/T

While the sounds that filter through on Beachwood Sparks’ debut take their roots some 25-30 years prior, the band stands among a new wave of Cosmic Americana artists from the early aughts who would set the swell going long into our current era. There aren’t really any tarnished spots in their winding run, which fell around ’00-’02 and then picked up a decade later with a second wind pushing the same cosmic sails. The Sub Pop years in particular hold a special place in my heart and it seems that the bulk of the praise from the period often falls on their sophomore LP, Once We Were Trees, as the band really begins to leave the confines of the Earth and exist among the gauzy amber glow of the clouds. A year earlier the band laid the groundwork for that album with an equally sublime ache. The record bears the marks of time well, sounding as much a lost country-psych classic as any dug up from the ‘70s.

As their run on Sub Pop ended, the catalog was left to languish without the proper attention it deserves. Now with Brent Rademaker’s Curation Records picking up some Cosmic American slack with a slew of new releases, the rights have come back home and Beachwood is getting a long overdue reissue of the debut album on double LP along with a second disc of bonus material that rounds up a few rarities along with the band’s contributions to the Sub Pop Singles Club. With a current wave of newfound Cosmic Americana voices taking shape, its nice to have one of the Aughts’ best back on the racks reminding us why they were such a key voice in the first place. That gorgeous double gatefold doesn’t hurt either.



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Barry Walker Jr.

With his stamp already on one of the years best LPs (contributing to North Americans stunning new record) Portland pedal steel player Barry Walker Jr aims for ambient country infamy with Shoulda Zenith. While it occupies some of the same space as his work with Patrick McDermott, the air that Walker is treading here is something more spectral and dangerous than he’s found himself embroiled in previously. HIs last album was another gem, occupying space on Driftless just like North Americans’ previous LP as well. Yet here, he dives deeper into the notion of pedal steel as an instrument and what it can accomplish when torn from its tethers as merely a paintbrush of sadness and ennui in the country canon. On Shoulda Zenith Walker still lets his instrument cry the lonesome cry that can be expected from his steel, but he distorts the the picture over these nine tracks, pushing the instrument to the front of the stage and then letting it growl, pant, breakdown, and blossom.

Now I’m not usually one to quote out the official rhetoric, but Holy Mountain pulling in a cross-section from experimental psych Texans and Japanese Out Rock, is extraordinarily apt. Walker’s finding the friction in country but also the longstanding pain and relief, especially with songs like the title track, which finds the familiar tones of the pedal steel thrown into the froth of feedback, crashing against the urge for calm. Walker riles and relents. For as often as the record strives to chafe, to dismantle the notions of staid lament that the instrument and country provide, he provides just as many opportunities for lightness and tender resolve. “Trinity Payload” knocks the listener into the sea wall of noise, but Walker’s there to scoop up the wreckage of the soul and nurse it back to health with a mournful moment. To cap it, he winds the record down with an old-soul country number that proves how deep his understanding of what he’s dismantling goes — a classic take that lets the album slide into the sunset scarred but not broken.



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Trevor Beld Jimenez – “Comeback Kid”

The past few years have been a blessing of cosmic country, often leaning towards an embrace of the past — landing between the Burritos’ blurred swagger and Crazy Horse’s toughened wander into the rough hills. Veteran songwriter Trevor Beld Jimenez slips between the salt-scrubbed breezes to bring a vision that’s pulled away from this Kodachrome prism of ‘70s country rock. He’s still reaching into the auburn arms of the California sun, but this is steeped in a more AOR, AM radio softness. “Comeback Kid” turns away from the glare that others embrace to find itself aligning with an unlikely love of Bread and America. The former’s Baby I’m-A Want You feels like it’s left a particular impression on Jimenez. As a contributor to several RSTB faves (GospelbeacH, Dios, Fruit Bats) Trevor’s no novice when it comes to the sounds that touch the wavy end of the country spectrum, but the clarity and care he imparts to the song gives a new life to the rock radio staples that sometimes wind up maligned in hindsight.

The song appears on the upcoming I Like It Here which ropes in a large roster of impressive talent Clay Finch, Pearl Charles, Nelson Bragg, Bob Glaub, Kacey Johansing, and Eric D. Johnson. The record lands November 13th on Curation Records.



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John Jeffrey

Given that Jeffrey went into these sessions with an idea of progression and improvisation — reaching for the antitheses of composition and structure, the four languid landscapes that inhabit Passage are remarkably fully formed. That’s not to say that the boundaries aren’t permeable. Within the bounds of these hypnotic pieces time and space seem to slip away, but the colors they create in the mind hold fast for each cut. The record is in line with the ambient crawl of the cosmic country class of 2020, and as such this album will sit nicely on the shelf alongside North Americans, Barry Walker Jr. and SUSS. Like those, Jeffrey plays with the drones inherent in the pedal steel and lets them seep into a world of haze that’s formed from synth, laconic guitar strums and the distant shuffle of drums.

Unlike the others, he’s not beholden to the construct, letting the album slide from drones into occasional rhythmic territory. What becomes interesting is how he shifts from the mind-drift sprawl of cosmic impulses into a waking dream that pulses along on an unseen thread. The pedal steel still shimmers underneath the motorik patter but now it squiggles in iridescent turquoise — a comfort from the past like the steady blink of an unset VCR clock seen through collapsing lids. He slides from the pulse of dream state into the meditation of lone contemplation seamlessly. The pieces are definite, but the entry points are infinite.

Make no mistake the word lone is a bit key here. This is not an album for an audience of multitudes. It’s a headphone album that dips into altered states. The album seems to start at dusk when the hues are steeped in amber sinking into a radiant black. No part of this album truly sees the day, again something that sets this apart from the ambient standouts of the year. The others are squinted through a hazed sun, but here we’re left to wander parking lots at dusk, a dirt road just outside of town, the edge of the driveway where the houselights don’t quite reach. There’s a weightlessness in Jeffrey’s record, whether it was purposeful or divined through those sessions by osmosis. By the time the last track cracks dawn might be near, but the morning light doesn’t quite seep into the the structure of the album. Its a wonderfully cool void to slip into for a while and each time through the path seems different than the last.




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SUSS – “Winter Light”

SUSS offer up an appropriately frigid video for their cut “Winter Light” off of the upcoming Promise. The band’s ambient country shines through, even in the bitter cold and all encompassing grey that’s coming for us in just a few short weeks. The song utilizes slides and synths to create a mournful, almost inconsolable darkness around the song. While there’s an argument that pedal steel can be the secret weapon of great country, here the band wields it to a devastating effect. The accompanying video dims the sun with scenes of snow covered stillness thats an apt pairing for the song. The new record is out December 4th from Northern Spy.



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Matthew ‘Doc’ Dunn

The last few years have seen Matthew ‘Doc’ Dunn kick out an enviable catalog of works on his own Cosmic Range Records and 2020 shows no sign of flagging with the arrival of Rain, Rain, Rain. Dunn’s name might ring familiar with a few folks around here — he’s been a longtime MV&EE collaborator in addition to showing up on records from fellow Canadians U.S. Girls, James Matthew VII, and Jennifer Castle. Not to rest easy he also heads up RSTB faves Sacred Lamp, The Cosmic Range, and Stonegrass. While his sidework tends to toe heavily into the psychedelic, on his own works he’s cultivated a bar-beaten singer songwriter countenance that’s washed in last call whiskey and delivered with a heart-heavy sigh.

As with his impeccable run from the last few years, Dunn’s songwriting here is touched a slight echo of ‘70s Van Morrison and Open Road era of Donovan. He’s soaked his records in the honeyed AM air that infected folk rock with a taste of cosmic croon and country-tumbled tangents as ’72 tumbled off of the calendar. That feeling runs heavy as ever over Rain, Rain, Rain. “Cold Wind” sways with jukebox twang and a lover’s embrace that’s only deepened on “Chance.” “Last Goodbye” brings a touch of Southern Soul in the background vocals, feeling like the tape might have run through Muscle Shoals before making its way back across the border to mellow in the Northern sun. As he dips into the distance on closer “Listen To The Rain” he lets the fog overtake the album, fading guitar cries into the soft patter rising on the wind.

There’s been a long kinship with his collaborator James Matthew VII. The artists have often graced each other’s records and Matthew shows up here once more to add in a good dose of buttered slide and tremolo ache. While JMVII lifts into the shimmer of ozone in his own works, here the pair ground Dunn’s record in the feeling of long-paced pavement, late-night lamentations, and last looks over a town before its left behind for good. The mark of a true country-folk gem is how much ache it can hang on a heart, and in that regard, this one’s as gold as they come. With each new solo work Dunn’s building a reputation as a Northern troubadour that shouldn’t be missed.




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Pearl Charles – “Take Your Time”

Today finds us left with another tender single from the upcoming Pearl Charles LP. The record pushes her away from some of the disco skip of her last record and into the full sway of the sunset stretches of ‘70s Canyon nights with a light scent of Cosmic Country on the breeze. “Take Your Time” is more at peace than “What I Need” — laced with the soft twang of guitars, a tumble of last call piano, and Charles’ heart-stung vocals. The song’s a reminder to slow down and drink in the moment, which is perhaps a helpful reminder while we’re all preoccupied with the crumble of Western Civilization. Yet it still bears some weight that a comfortable autumn afternoon with the right kind of air and a ripple of wind through the leaves can let most anything wait for an hour or so. The new album is out January 15th from Kanine.




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Anatomy of Design: Cut Worms

If it’s escaped your radar, the new Cut Worms is something of a heart-worn gem — an album that’s rooted in the lonesome cowboy strain that infected the West Coast rock songwriters from Gene Clark to Michael Nesmith. There’s an earnest nature to the record that’s bittersweet but able to walk into the wind and wilds with determination. Now while most know Max Clarke for his songwriting he is, in fact, an accomplished visual artist as well and his works have graced Cut Worms covers in the past, including the sculpture from 2018’s Hollow Ground. For the latest release, he’s created a series of inspired illustrations that mark each single on Nobody Lives Here Anymore. I spoke with Max about the ideas behind this new series and some of the design inspiration that drives him and his work.

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