May 29, 2024

Nathan Bowles – Plainly Mistaken – ”It’s banjo, but not as we know it”


This is clever stuff.

Working with an instrument almost exclusively known to folk musics, Nathan Bowles takes the banjo and subverts our expectations. Willie Nelson was wrong – you CAN play a sad song on a banjo. And a witty one, and a melancholy one and any other sort you choose. Intricate and thoughtful, each track is an individual exercise in something new. Whether it is the solo work, picking carefully, the pieces with percussion or the metronomic first couple of tracks, the second featuring some marvellously grainy bowed bass and the first being a cover of a lullaby a seven year old wrote for Julie Tippet on a seventies album.

The foregoing isn’t to say there isn’t Apppalachian hillbilly music, just that this is sui-generis in its approach. Bill Callahan suggests his special thing “is the grand blankness of seeing everything at once. Or maybe it is a pinhole vision that soothes and subjects in its narrowness.” Umbra has a tinge of Eastern tuning and a stumbling slow picked gait. It charms. When Elk River Blues arrives, it surprises with its traditional approach. Traditional, except the band is banjo, bass and drums. Ruby, with sawing bass is a wonderful back to basics stomp from 1946, picked fast and fun. It wobbles and rolls along like a runaway wagon on a bumpy road then, suddenly it turns left into a dark and scary place, which is fun and disorientating. The following solo piece, on a banjo / bazouki hybrid, is intricate and full of thoughts. The set does another cycle through a traditional-sounding piece and into spooky scratchy sounds to cleanse the palate before we round off nicely with a spare and simple reel.

The album is the work of a master of his instrument and built from all sorts of found and invented musical pieces; the findings of a musical breakers yard. One to ponder on and explore thoroughly, this rewards time spent with it.

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