Album review: Nathan Bowles lets banjo do the singing

Nathan Bowles

Nathan Bowles’ “Whole and Cloven” reveals a vast terrain of acoustic music.

Black Twig Pickers banjo player Nathan Bowles always has been one to wander to his own sound. His offerings always have felt beautiful and arresting, if not slightly other-worldy, his use of banjo traveling within the spheres of African and Middle Eastern influence, as well as old-timey Appalachian music. On his latest album, “Whole and Cloven,” Bowles reveals a vast terrain of acoustic music that is his most gripping to date.

The album is quite comfortable in space. The droning nature of Bowles’ compositions, the banjo pounding on one chord as guitars rock underneath of it and ambient strings twinkle around, forms a visceral, sonic landscape in which to float. “Blank Range/ Hog Jank II” is one such song, where you are pulled through a current of flowing strings, Bowles’ banjo keeping steady, prickly time. Then suddenly you are tossed aside into a calm, little eddy up against the bank, out the way of the rapids, a respite from the swirling notes.

Nathan Bowles albumAnd if we are talking about an acoustic journey, “I Miss My Dog” is an epic one. Bowles starts with a few waking picks of the banjo, taking his time to work into a rhythm, like the first miles into the backcountry. He adds a layer of piano and guitar over it and the song starts to warm up until it is cutting through the forest at a steady but breakneck pace. It is transcendental almost, the song whipping in your face like wind. But all things must come to rest and Bowles lays you down easily in a nook, perhaps under a tree, being sure to find the softest spot for you to lay your head.

Part of the reason there are vast amounts of music to move through on “Whole and Cloven” is because Bowles mainly keeps it an instrumental affair. He sings through his fingers rather than his mouth, still as pretty and unique as any frontman or frontwoman of a band. You can hear the excited, high-pitched wails from the banjo in the mystically provocative “Gadarene Fugue.” And Bowles is comically mum on “Words Spoken Aloud,”  but as you listen to the melody stroll and then saunter, you can hear the conversation that he’s having with himself, fits between the notes.

When there is something to sing about, naturally it’s moonshine. “Moonshine is the Sunshine” is a damn catchy, backwoods sing-along.  Bowles’ voice is deep and piney with a little ashen gruff to it, a natural blend when combined with the song’s drunken verses and free wheeling spirit.

Take this album and go, go wherever you want with it. Like water or air, it will naturally fill in whatever space you find yourself in, and you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in it.

About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

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