The black and white photograph adorning the cover of Noam Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite“ makes for a striking image. An artist and his tools among a few trees on a tiny island in a lake. Fitting, too, as Pikelny — the banjo player alongside Chris Thile and the rest of the virtuosos in the Punch Brothers — definitely stands alone as a musician. And, this fourth solo album truly is a solo album — just the man, his strings, and his voice.
Some folks hear “banjo record” and run for the hills. “Universal Favorite” thrives not so much on mountain music, but on colors drawn with strings; moods created simply by tone, and sometimes in union with voice. Pikelny calls it his “Musical Manifesto.” It’s gorgeous and compelling from beginning to end, and in a strange way, it rocks.
“Waveland” (named for a street behind Wrigley Field) opens it up like a gently flowering musical kaleidoscope, an indication of bright things to come. An old-timey nature does enlighten “Old Banjo” (the first song he remembers hearing as a child), but it’s of the kind that conjures up pictures of stout, calloused men in the days of repression. Light and heavy all at once, the song also features the first time Pikelny decided to sing on record, his droll baritone perfectly complimenting his sunny picking. In fact, Pikelny’s voice really conveys the real blues, on display best in his sorrowful cover of Josh Ritter’s “Folk Bloodbath,” a blending of several murder ballads rolled into one.
“Sugar Maple” and “Redbud” both do their jobs summoning airs of blooming trees in their groves — pure banjo melodies, untroubled and quietly astonishing. The title “Universal Favorite” derives from a particular banjo in an old catalog Pikelny recently perused. He thought how bold it was for a company to call their instrument such a thing. Pikelny traces his own musical history throughout this very personal album, and does so by masterfully recalling some of the sounds of American history. That’s certainly audacious too, and certainly worth repeated listening.
Label: Rounder Records
Release: March 3, 2017