With Black Twig Pickers, and their raw, open-minded approach to bluegrass, and the Appalachian drone of Pelt, Nathan Bowles’ work has been defined by a musical curiousity that thrives upon defying expectations. His third solo album sees him taking the spirit of those bands, not to mention his extra-curricular work (Michael Chapman, Steve Gunn), and running with it to create a set of meditations on themes that manages to transcend any limitations that the traditional instrumentation may suggest. Opener Words Spoken Aloud and the following Chiaroscuro set out his stall – the former a bucolic claw hammer banjo and Jew’s harp piece, while the latter sees Bowles dazzle with a shimmering piano piece reminiscent of the more urgent parts of Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air, though played on untreated piano.
In retrospect, it seems like Nathan Bowles was biding his time, toying with our expectations a bit in his solo records. Considering all his work outside of his own music, playing all kinds of instruments for Steve Gunn or playing with Black Twig Pickers or collaborating with Michael Chapman, maybe we should have known. But if you go back to A Bottle, A Buckeye, Bowles’s discography plays like a slow-building story, one in no hurry to reveal where it’s going, and one prone to shifting the path once you get a foot on it.
The sun smooth cresting over the ridge catches itself on a scintilla of something drifting about the air. Among stands of black pine and domineering spruce, glinting glimpses of floating figures organized by a primeval mountain geometry. The atmosphere is one of sanctuary. Planted in the friable loam like an acorn is a wisdom and a history.
Nathan Bowles may be best known as a banjo player, but he’s not just a banjo player. Aside from playing drums, piano, and organ in Steve Gunn’s touring band as well as supporting roles in Pelt and Black Twig Pickers, Bowles’ solo albums cover a wide terrain. On 2014’s Nansemond, guitarist Tom Carter nearly stole the show. His solos helped bring Bowles’ compositions—which recall both early American folk and more contemporary revivalists like Jack Rose—to thornier and heavier places.