Its been a while since the last Gregory Alan Isakov record, but such are the vagaries of international distribution deals and so forth. But at last the follow up to The Empty Northern Hemisphere released back in 2009 is getting a UK release. The Weatherman should be available via your favoured retailer as this review lands and will certainly be on sale throughout the tour, which has just started. The good news on that front is that the dates are all but sold out. The even better news is that The Weatherman confirms Gregory’s status as a firm FRUK favourite with its quietly spellbinding mysteries and sublime sounds. It’s even on vinyl – yippee!
This is Isakov’s fifth album in all, with the first, Rust Coloured Stones released back in 2003. You might call the following Songs For October a mini album, and his website only shows That Sea, The Gambler in addition to the new release and the intervening The Empty Northern Hemisphere. Add to that that this new CD was originally released in America last year and there’s the sense of man of a man who isn’t exactly in a hurry. But then sometimes patience brings its own reward, while the extra wait simply heightens the expectation. Besides his tour offers suitable support for the record, which as mentioned above has generated plenty of interest in its own right. But add to that the timely intervention of Passenger, who has just confirmed he is a fan of Gregory and the surge of interest could hardly have been more opportune.
Perhaps Mike Rosenberg has identified a kindred, wandering spirit, much as with Stu Larsen, because Gregory, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, has spent much of his life travelling. His family emigrated to the USA, when he was just a child and Gregory was brought up in Philadelphia. It was there that a musical career was hatched, which led to Gregory starting the touring life at the tender age of 16. Music is so important to him that Gregory has claimed, “I’ve always had this sense about music and writing, that I sort of have to do it. Like I’ll implode without it. I probably wouldn’t do it if I felt any other way.”
Of course there’s a yin to the yang and Isakov is also a horticultural graduate, with a passion for the pleasures of a patch of land. Much as the Chinese symbol expresses balance, both sides of his character inform a sense of the importance of place, both physical and mental. Explaining the new album Gregory has said, “To me, the idea of a weatherman is really powerful. There’s a guy on television or on the radio telling us the future, and nobody cares. It’s this daily mundane miracle, and I think the songs I chose are about noticing the beauty in normal, everyday life.” Perhaps that underlines the sense of patience, of taking time to absorb the moment, the situation, the view, or the feeling.
Arguably it’s also there in the old fashioned recording techniques he’s employed for The Weatherman. It suggests both a care in his craft, perhaps a particular sound and a mind set on working and if necessary, re-working the recording until that was achieved. As John Fullbright recently pointed out here, you have to be good just to want to work in analogue, there are no easy fixes for mistakes or bad takes, you have no choice but to rewind and do it again. As he reveals, “I wanted to make something that felt genuine. We recorded everything with analogue gear and mixed it on tape, which gives the songs a raw and vulnerable feeling.”
His website states that the new album was recorded mostly in solitude outside the quiet mountain town of Nederland, Colorado over the course of a year and a half. It’s that state that he calls home these days, and there he is good friends with another FRUK favourite who has also drifted in from elsewhere, Nathaniel Rateliff. They share a mutual friend in Jamie Mefford, who co-produces The Weatherman, while Nathaniel guests. Elephant Revival’s Bonnie May Paine is also involved amongst a dozen credited musicians, but with several of those just offering vocal support, the lion’s share of the instrumentation is literally in the hands of the extremely versatile Isakov on an array of guitars, keyboards, banjo, ukulele and even drums. There are similarities between Gregory and Nathaniel too, in the hushed delivery, strummed acoustic guitars and minimalist settings, although Isakov’s approach to songwriting and vocal style are both distinctive and different. None the less, those who warmed to Rateliff as our Artist Of The Month, should proceed to purchase without a moments hesitation.
In making notes about the album, I found I was using the same terms time and again, not because each song sounds the same, but there is an overall consistency of approach. This is an album of gentle swells, intimate voices, with ripples of grace notes and heavenly choirs adding to the emotional ebb and flow. It’s a gently paced 41 and a bit minutes of music that is quietly beguiling, rather than attention seeking, but when you do pay proper intent, the rewards are many. It’s an album that works very well on vinyl, but as the review period has found me involved in a fair amount of travel, the ALAC files on my iPod and a decent pair of headphones has proved an immersive experience and a great way to get to know Gregory up close and personal.
Amsterdam starts with a loose limbed patter of drums and a warm, mellow guitar with a second acoustic picking out a motif above. There are laconic interjections from the piano and Gregory’s laid back voice is joined with a harmony line in the second verse. There are all manner of tiny little details, which ride the periphery and the last verse is almost a howl, but dislocated and distant. It has a quietly epic quality and the credit of ‘god noises’ against Jamie Mefford’s name starts to make sense.
[pullquote]In between the prosaic and the poetic is where many of the best lyric writers dwell and Gregory stakes his claim to that turf time and again through The Weatherman[/pullquote]Saint Valentine has a bright guitar riff and banjo bubbling away, while the song itself seems like a lament for love lost as Gregory sings, “Well, Grace she’s gone, she’s a half-written poem, she went out for cigarettes and never came home, and I swallowed the sun and screamed and wailed, straight down to the dirt so I could find her trail.” In between the prosaic and the poetic is where many of the best lyric writers dwell and Gregory stakes his claim to that turf time and again through The Weatherman.
The album is peppered with the kind of lines one of his avowed heroes Leonard Cohen would be pleased with, but I’ve noted Paul Simon’s name on more than one occasion, as something indefinable keeps surfacing through the memory banks, just out of grasp. It’s what I’m hearing, and you may well hear something else, but Saint Valentine is the first, but The Universe and also Suitcase Full Of Sparks are annotated thus. All three, but the middle of those in particular, with its hint of the studios ambience, clever infinite organ drift, minimalist piano lines and heavenly chorus, making sense of the expansive list of the extra voices, edge ahead as early favourites. Mind you as the album plays again, every song makes its case and my choices waver.
There are also three tracks that seem to be in waltz time, the brilliant Second Chances (a song he played in his 2012 Folk Radio UK Session for the first time, you can listen below), with symbols crashing like waves on the emotional tide, Time Will Tell, where Gregory’s voice hits a higher register and the ghostly saw appears, and All Shades Of Blue, which although distant and dislocated has a whistling coda and the optimism of lines like, “Just your smile lit a sixty-watt bulb in my house, That was darkened for days, Been thinking you probably should stay”.
There are also a couple that have the shuffling acoustic rhythms, minimalism and intimacy of the recent Nathaniel Rateliff album, although Living Proof takes off like a fairground ride in the middle. Honey It’s All Right meanwhile starts with that stark simplicity of just guitar and voice, but builds with the vocal choir and organ, bass and piano joining the gently swelling ranks to guide us through to its sublime conclusion.
Even where minimalism isn’t the key word, songs like O’ City Lights are a tender cascade of melancholy, albeit with a dark glint at its heart and in the opening lines, “Maria’s stoned like a porcelain saint, Sweet morphine.” Astronaut is also blessed with a delightfully subtle orchestration and a hushed, muted tonality that makes a dream of lines like, “Won’t you come to my house tonight, We could sleep on the floor, I got this window that looks out to Orion, I paid extra for.”
There is a brief interlude with the banjo driven instrumental and wordless voices of California Open Back, which adds a mysterious element in the middle of the record. But the strangest, most dream-like moment of the record comes at the end in She Always Takes It Black. Once again the familiar textures of the record are all there, but beneath the guitar and vocals the other instruments are deliberately blurred and blended as they rise and fall. The extended coda introduces voices, with someone talking, but they remain at the edge of hearing and out of focus, adding a final intrigue that refuses to be resolved.
Gregory has claimed that his songs have a life of their own and that even he doesn’t always know what they mean, but just how they feel. So if the album’s finish leaves a question mark hanging, then the truth is that you can provide your own answers. The best way to do that is to go back to the beginning and start again. With each play it’s not that things become any clearer, it’s just that it matters less, perchance to dream these dreams that Gregory has seeded as you fall under his spell. Let The Weatherman tell you how.
Review by: Simon Holland
Gregory’s Folk Radio UK Session from 2011 which includes his performance of Second Chances which features on The Weatherman album.
UK Tour Dates
Fri Oct 17 / Brighton / Komedia Studio Bar
Sat Oct 18 / Bristol / Louisiana
Sun Oct 19 / Glasgow / King Tut’s
Mon Oct 20 / Manchester / Gullivers
Tue Oct 21 / London / Bush Hall
Visit his website for the full European dates and ticket links: