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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