Beneath the simple, familiar melodies of traditional Appalachian music lies an elemental undercurrent. It’s easy—and fun—to stomp your feet to old-timey tunes, but when their circling figures are repeated at length, the catchy gradually becomes the hypnotic. Many musicians have recognized this potential and mined it brilliantly—think of John Fahey matching country-blues fingerpicking to Indian ragas, or the twangy held-tones of Henry Flynt’s “avant-garde hillbilly” style.
Early in their now 21-year career, Virginia band Pelt similarly gravitated toward the mesmerizing possibilities of Applachian-influenced drone. In 2006, they added banjo player Nathan Bowles, presumably because he shared that sensibility. That common approach subsequently shone through on his 2012 solo debut A Bottle, A Buckeye, and it’s even brighter on his follow-up, Nansemond. Its seven tracks aren’t all extended loops; a few are more succint songs with vocals, and there’s sonic variety everywhere. But the core of the album is a fascination with entrancing repetition.
In the best instances, Bowles sounds like he could play forever without boring himself or anyone listening. He attacks his strings boldly and sharply, yet he continually adds small variations and minute adjustments, viewing each iteration of a chord or phrase from a slightly different angle. This subtly-evolving consistency creates an intriguing blend of comfort and tension. You can settle your ears into Bowles’ grooves, or you can lean to the edge of your seat wondering what little shift will come next. Often, you can do both at the same time.
Bowles places his longest explorations at the beginning and end of Nansemond, and they serve as the album’s high points. “Sleepy Lake Bike Club” opens with a low, echoing tone and some deliberate chords, before launching into six minutes of energetic plucks and strums. Even though he hews to a form, Bowles intuitively feels his way around those melodic paces rather than dryly executing them. At the other end of Nansemond, “Golden Floaters/Hog Jank” is patient and halting in a way that puts you in the passenger seat next to Bowles, while the spry chords of “Sleepy Lake Tire Swing” escalate into a passage played so fast it feels maniacally possessed.
In between, Bowles offers a gruffly crooned ditty, a fiddle-heavy hoedown, and a folk piece that morphs into a rock journey with searing electric guitar from Charalambides’ Tom Carter. All of those strands are united by Bowles’ dedication to repetition, as well as his knack for making everything intensely percussive even when no drums are present. (Bowles was a drummer before he joined the more-traditional-sounding Pelt side project Black Twig Pickers, who convinced him to take up banjo.)
Bowles titled Nansemond after a near-extinct Indian tribe; he grew up next to a river in Virginia that adopted their name. The word represents lots of complex history, and one could surely make parallels between that textured legacy and the many nuances in Bowles’ music. But it’s also fitting to just think of this record as a musical river—a flowing body of work that’s dependably solid and rippling with variation. For Bowles, the rich potential of simple traditions is as crucial as the water that fills a stream.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1HiQqOi