When we reminisce over our earliest childhood memories, the places we grew up may appear as hazily mythical, vast in size and teeming with possibilities. As we mature a longing to escape these everyday confines may stir. So when years later we return, our once-spellbinding surroundings may have undergone some transformations of their own. But somehow a road name or a bird’s song or an old map, as is the case with Virginia-native Nathan Bowles, may allow one to tap into the essence of that lost land and examine the nature of that shadowy space.
Bowles’ second solo effort Nansemond takes its title from the ‘Nansemond County’ region where he grew up. Nowadays the area is referred to as ‘Suffolk’, Nansemond County with its dark and complex history has somewhat faded into obscurity. Now when Bowles returns to visit his father he can hardly recognise the graceless wetlands of his youth.
Whereas Bowles’ 2012 debut ‘A Bottle, A Buckeye’ focused on the old-time banjo playing of the past and the present, on Nansemond the compositions seem to have grown out of a need to establish a connection with the evocative scenes of his past. His struggle with recent life-altering events, memories of his youth and the history of the region are all ingrained into the narrative of each song on Nansemond.
It is also his boldest sonic outing yet. Signed to the illustrious, archiving record label Paradise of Bachelors, multi-instrumentalist Bowles is also an ensemble player with label mates Hiss Golden Messenger and Steve Gunn. Sitting somewhere in-between his work with the John Fahey inspired, drone music band, Pelt and his Appalachian, old-time outfit The Black Twig Pickers, Nansemond rewrites the folk-based formula of the banjo’s past and creates something entirely unique.
The sweeping slide of ‘Sleepy Lake Bike Club’ opens the record, against a soft backdrop of drone. Bowles has stated the wistful title of ‘Bike Club’ seemed fitting as the piece evoked memories of biking through woods with his friends of yesteryear. As his fingers scratch against the banjo skin and the intro casually works to a resolve he suddenly breaks into a flurry of southern licks and a strong rootsy hook develops. Discussing his distinctive clawhammer playing style with Fractured Air he said:
“I like the clawhammer approach to open-tuned banjo because it allows me to express ideas melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically in a way that feels closest to how I think of music in my head.”
This is one of the reasons why these compositions are so ensnaring; one finds themselves overwhelmed by the evolving narratives at work. The hypnotizing harmonic rhythm, a little flourish here and the extra hammer-on there, all interblend to seduce and transport the listener.
After ‘Sleepy Lake Bike Club’s stabbed chords and mellow, arpeggiated outro, the ‘The Smoke Swallower’ slinks into view like some grisly fiend lurching its way across a foul bog. The studio-improvised song takes on a sinister and cinematic feel, as keys tinkle and Tom Carter’s wavering guitar cries out like a radio desperately trying to tune into a station. As the dark, drone epic dies down the rolling, folk song ‘Jonah/Poor Liza Jane’ bursts into life and we are met by the rugged southern vocals of Bowles.
‘Chuckatuck’ gives further evidence of the sensuous soundscapes Bowles can create at will. Again with the help of Charalambides’ Tom Carter, the texture of the track thickens as exotic riffs echo, alongside the growing sound of rumbling thunder. Then the standout song really hits its psychedelic stride, as a spiraling lead guitar cuts through the mix as if fighting its way towards sunlight.
The fiddle/banjo brace ‘J.H. for M.P’ sees Bowles and fiddler Steve Kruger harmonizing together for the most traditional song on the album. Bowles mentioned it is a favourite of theirs to play when they ‘get together around town’ and it does feel as if you have a porch side seat next to the action. The easygoing exploratory ramble ‘Golden Floaters/Hog Jank’ is the penultimate track on Nansemond. As a listener you listlessly drift with the smooth movements, until it moves into the high-pitched picking and apparent downpour patter of the outro. ‘Sleepy Lake Tire Swing’ then returns with the winding, contemplative essence of ‘Sleepy Lake Bike Club’ awash with rich and subtle, alternating melodies and that rhythmic clawhammer repetition which again works to mesmerizing the listener.
The songs on Nansemond are extraordinary because they sound so fresh whilst still alluding to the sounds of the past. When questioned about his creative process and how other artists have influenced each track, Bowles has stated he cannot decipher where each new idea stems from, he can only direct it in terms of his overall artistic vision. This is what we hear on Nansemond, an artist crafting a story, part myth, part memoir. The music takes us to such far-removed places that when we look back we can barely recognise where we started.
Review by: David Weir
Sleepy Lake Tire Swing
Out Now via Paradise of Bachelors