Sarah Louise – Deeper Woods
Thrill Jockey – 11 May 2018
Anybody who has heard Sarah Louise Henson’s two previous solo releases, 2015’s Scissortail Field Guide and 2016’s VDSQ Volume 12, or indeed her House and Land collaboration with Sally Anne Morgan of the Black Twig Pickers, will understand her unique approach to the acoustic guitar. Sarah Louise is almost an anti-Fahey, making up tunings that contribute to her often maverick, certainly singular, dissonant finger-picking style and never disclosing them. On the solo albums, her twelve-string guitar has taken on the role of independently voicing the landscapes and natural observations that so inform her music, but here on her first solo recording for Thrill Jockey, Sarah Louise expands the instrumentation and also introduces vocals to her solo work. It feels like a natural progression from the House and Land project and is as successful a result as that excellent set.
Although the arrangements here are the richest that Henson has yet produced, this is still an album steeped in nature and she is careful not to saturate the sound. Also, the unorthodox guitar picking is prominent throughout and immediately there in the opening bars of ‘Bowman’s Root’, but her voice is the most startling element, coming in ethereally to ponder ‘the echo of the ancient groves’ and sitting in front of a steady guitar arrangement that grounds her rangy voice. In fact, the vocal feels like the star of the show here – not too surprising considering the project began as a capella pieces – acting as wildlife forager as the instruments fill in colour on the landscapes and forest floor. Just listen to the distorted Stratocaster beef up the acoustic line on ‘When Winter Turns’, before switching to a top string noodle as the narrator moves ‘towards this growing light’; it is there appropriately, without becoming too intrusive.
Elsewhere on ‘The Field that Touches my House and Yours’, the guitar is left off entirely in favour of piano and synthesiser backing layers of Sarah Louise’s vocal, creating an undulating effect, illustrating one of many liminal spaces the album refers to, around pagan-sounding lyrics: ‘I’ve lived in woods deeper than these / I picture intertwining briars and open my eyes to the fire’. That ancient eeriness extends onto ‘Pipevine Swallowtails’, where Sally Anne Morgan’s violin line runs low and drone-like alongside a twelve string picking that abruptly stops halfway through before creating an urgent ringing repeated pattern, introducing layered, swirling vocals that come through the sacred (this word, along with ancient, peppers the set) landscape like Sirens.
‘Fire Pink and Milkweed’ ends up being the only a capella song on here, a multi-layering of Henson’s vocal evoking a quiet crepuscular setting where the drama of wildlife has given way to stars and fog settling under the mountain crowns. It is a fitting environment to end the album, quietly sitting with a night owl observing the beauty of night-time approaching and marvelling as ‘Primrose opens to night flying beetles’. Much like any art Sarah Louise does, Deeper Woods is an album in awe of the beauty and complexity of nature but, unlike her previous solo outings, which create a soundscape from unusual guitar tunings and picking techniques, here the sonic palette is broader and the textures more intricate and ambitious. The result is at once beautiful and beguiling; a hugely listenable spiritual abstract journey through deep and ancient landscapes, where there is always much to find and delight.
When Winter Turns (Live at The Hideout):
Deeper Woods is out now on Thrill Jockey
Photo Credit: Inset image – Judy Henson