Beautifully played and versatile but an album whose audience might be limited.
Well, that’s an album title that just rolls off the tongue. If you plan to buy this at the record store you’ll need to turn up early to make sure the place doesn’t close up before you finish asking for it. Title aside, this is, indeed, the eleventh volume of Tompkins Square’s ‘Imaginational Anthem’ series and it is, of course, one given over entirely to the pedal steel guitar. For those of you who know of Luke Schneider, and many of you should recognise the name, you’ll know that he’s one of the most sought after pedal steel players in Nashville. Interestingly, it seems that many virtuoso pedal steel players prefer to play something other than country and americana on their own time and that’s what we have here – not much in the way of americana music but one of americana’s key instruments being deployed on a collection of soundscapes by some of the top names associated with the pedal steel guitar. Schneider himself is here, but so is the legendary maestro BJ Cole, along with fellow Brit, Spencer Cullum and a host of others. The CD and vinyl versions also come with a history of the instrument written by Nashville guitarist, William Tyler.
The album kicks off with B.J. Cole’s ‘Ely Revisited’, also the first single from the album, and it’s a beautifully shimmering soundscape that conjures up early morning mists over the marshlands and really shows off the tonal range of a pedal steel guitar in the hands of a master. The problem is, so many of these tracks are beautifully shimmering soundscapes with wonderful tonal range because, if you’re not playing country and americana, that’s pretty much what pedal steel does – it shimmers. Beautifully.
You have to get to the fifth track of the album, Spencer Cullum’s ‘Ode to Dungeness’, before the music breaks into a lope and the pedal steel stops shimmering and starts sparkling, which appears to be the other default setting.
There’s a lot of excellent music on this album and it is good to hear the instrument featured in this way. Pedal steel guitar is a complex and difficult instrument, playing it is often described as a musical equivalent of flying a helicopter, given its array of pedals and levers that are used, so to hear the cream of players on this album really is quite special. It’s an instrument that is, traditionally, associated with male musicians so it’s particularly exciting that two of the standout tracks come from female players. Susan Alcorn’s ‘Gilmor Blue’ has a haunting, almost spooky quality that reflects her interest in free jazz and avant-garde classical music, and Maggie Björklund’s contribution, ‘Flow’, is probably the closest to americana on the album and is, genuinely, exciting and interesting and may well encourage some readers to check out her own recordings. She is a Danish musician who started out as an electric guitar player, in female rock band The Darleens, and now works in folk and alt-country.
Luke Schneider’s own contribution, ‘Yosemite’, falls into the shimmering category and is quite hypnotic as it builds its central riff and beguiles you with its rise and fall and slowly decaying notes. Beautiful, as you might expect. Elsewhere Jonny Lam, Rocco DeLuca, and Barry Walker Jnr all acquit themselves well and the album finishes with Will Van Horn’s ‘Magnolia City’, which feels almost like a lullaby and a suitable way to close out the album.
There is absolutely nothing to dislike about this album and much to enjoy. There is some beautiful music, expertly played and it really does show how versatile this instrument can be, but you have to wonder who the audience is for this album. These are all instrumental tracks and you can, probably, see them having some appeal to the ambient crowd and new agers; much of it has that floating, detached feel. There will be some appeal to the avant-garde market, both in classical and jazz but it’s hard to see this album having anything outside of novelty interest to the americana audience. The majority of tracks are too ethereal and lacking in bite – it’s all just a bit too nice and likely to fade into the background.
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