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Noam Pikelny’s ‘Universal Favorite’ the ultimate solo album

Lary Sabo

Noam Pikelny’s album “Universal Favorite” is one to pick.

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.

Universal PikelnySome 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.

-Tom Clarke

Related story: Concert review — Punch Brothers in Tahoe onstage

Noam Pikelny
‘Universal Favorite’

Label: Rounder Records
Release: March 3, 2017

About Tom Clarke

From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 20 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, and the 45-year timelines and ever-growing family trees of The Allman Brothers Band and Los Lobos. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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