Life is full of funny coincidences, isn’t it? Exactly a decade ago, I was playing guitar in The Higher Burning Fire, something of a chamber-pop group that (by my influence) dabbled with folky and fingerpicked guitar patterns. In the middle of a full-band relocation from Kansas to New York City, I received an interesting phone call from our drummer, already in the Big Apple – “I met this guy, he’s really cool, he’s gotta be in the band… you’ll love him, he plays just like you!” My excitable drummer must have somehow forgotten that I also played just like me, and that I was but one of the three more-than-competent guitarists in our band… a fourth guitarist? Did it really matter what he played like? His mind was made up, though, and I took the whole thing as a sign that maybe I didn’t want to carry on with the band any more. “They’ll be fine, no shortage of guitarists there!” They did the New York thing (for a little over a year) and I found my way up to Boston.
Can you tell where I’m going with this? That mysterious fourth guitarist was none other than Nathan Salsburg, freshly arrived to NYC from Louisville and working for The Alan Lomax Archives, a post that he holds to this day. When I went back to New York a little while later to see what my former band mates had been making of themselves in their adopted home, I found Nathan to be not only a great guitarist but a sweet guy as well, and we hit it off talking about Bert Jansch and Scott Walker.
Fast forward about seven years… the band had long broken up and gone our separate ways, and I had devoted myself almost exclusively to acoustic guitar music. I picked up the fantastic third volume in Tompkin Square’s Imaginational Anthem series and saw who else but Nathan listed among the artists on the back of the disc. His standout track “Bold Ruler’s Joys” was not only one of the disc’s (and series’) highlights, but was one of the most compelling and confident acoustic instrumentals that I’d heard from any of the current generation of young fingerpickers. Nathan didn’t play “just like me” at all, he was worlds better, in a league of his own! I quickly got a message to the man, and we started keeping in touch regularly.
Over the last couple of years, Nathan has been sending me some of his works-in-progress, mostly next-level fingerstyle jams named after race horses… for he has moved back to his native Louisville, and the Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras combined down there! Last year, I began hearing from Nathan about another project, a guitar duet record involving a guy named Jim from Chicago. Jim turned out to be James Elkington, of The Zincs and The Horses Ha, who also turned out (by yet another coincidence) to be the drummer for Brokeback, a Chicago group led by the legendary Doug McCombs (he of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day). I’ve shared a bill with Doug many times in the last few years, since he and my duet partner Dave are old friends from Dave’s Chicago days. It’s a small, small musical world folks, and it’s only getting smaller… but this back story and all its little coincidences could not have led to a more exciting moment, and now I have the great pleasure to review James’ and Nathan’s stellar debut Avos.
According to the press release, Avos “comes from the Russian word for the confident approach to new situations, and the faith that nothing tragic will occur once in them.” From speaking to Nathan, it’s my impression that the writing and recording sessions for this album were few and casual, which makes the impeccable timing and interplay between these two guitarists that much more stunning. Their playing and guitar tones are so complimentary, so perfectly wed that I wouldn’t hesitate to put the duo up there with some of the very best acoustic guitar partnerships: Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn come immediately to mind, as does the work of Richard Crandell and Bill Bartels on their excellent, make that classic duet record Oregon Hill. There are tinges of the former duo’s transatlantic (no pun intended) approach, but the Elkington/Salsburg compositions, heavy on harmonized arpeggios and runs, light on improv and soloing, really fall more toward the Crandell/Bartels side of things, albeit with a less overt sense of virtuosity. I once heard the fabulous nylon string duo of Sergio and Odair Assad described as “Two guitarists, one mind” and I think those words also befit the playing on Avos quite well.
The record begins with the jaunty yet brooding “Hospitality”. This agressive boom-chicker (whose working title, incidentally/hysterically, was “Bunshiner”) kicks the album off perfectly, and when I first heard the rhythm break for a set of quirky, harmonized two-string runs, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud… it was obvious that these guys were a force to be reckoned with. The duo don’t let up for a moment, and the short but sweet opener is followed by “A Free Amft”, an expansive tune whose main theme repeats with playful variations as the song goes on. I love the musical textures of this track, which also features the album’s first non-guitar participants, namely an upright bass (played by Nick Macri) and the wind chimes that appear in the bridge.
“Sedentary Song” is a mid-tempo, jazzed up blues, and has some fascinating dissonances and counterpoint. This one in particular reminds me of some of the early Grossman/Renbourn stuff, which is of course right up my alley… why, those fellows’ faces are wood-burned on the gates of my proverbial wheelhouse! “Fez and Guinness” possesses the disc’s strongest melodic statement, which is doubled (with a few tasteful flourishes) by guest Wanees Zarour on violin… and what a melody it is! Graceful and elegant, like many of this album’s riffs and melodic snippets, “Fez and Guinness” is something that stayed with me even after the first listen, and achieving “catchy” is no easy task when you’re talking about instrumental guitar music… much less duets!
Sequence-wise, the album might be considered front-loaded, since a couple of tunes on Avos’ second side don’t quite meet the gold standard of the majority… not because they aren’t enjoyable listens, but because their harmonic interplay is a bit less adventurous, their rhythms a bit less ebullient. The side kicks off with the great “Believer Field”, a melody-over-pattern-picking dirge that rapidly evolves into exciting harmonized runs in both the bass and upper registers. Later in the side, “Straight Up and Down” might be the album’s most predictable track, in terms of the way the harmonies attach themselves to the primary theme, though the song’s coda is incredibly pretty. “The Blurring Cogs” has a playful and memorable melody, but the “guitarmonies” aren’t presented quite as confidently as on many of the other tunes, and the effect feels more like doubling than counterpoint… the opposite is true on “Trois Poires”, a gorgeous waltz very much in the Grossman/Renbourn vein (this time circa The Three Kingdoms). Here, Elkington and Salsburg’s guitars deftly weave in and out of each other, creating a rich, melancholy atmosphere. The track’s circular rhythm, though quite precise, somehow seems to exist outside of the idea of time signature, and this adds to the tune’s dreamy feel.
It should be said that any critical nit-picking is just that, for even the “average” Elkington/Salsburg track is worlds beyond a lot of what crosses my desk here at Work & Worry. I can’t begin to express what a breath of fresh air an album like Avos really is… Elkington and Salsburg’s compositions have that rare, near-perfect blend of swagger and sensitivity, with compelling arrangements and harmonic intrigues to spare. It’s a welcome change from the seemingly endless train of Takoma-obsessed pickers of recent times, and though that approach to guitar playing has its charms, I much prefer the focussed, dare I say timeless compositional artistry that Avos has in spades. At this site, we’re really not known for talking in sound bites, but here’s one for anyone keeping track : Avos is the guitar album of the year.