State River Widening – Early Music

Released back in 1999, State River Widening’s self-titled debut album was the kind of twinkling treasure that left many of its listeners positively aching in anticipation for a sequel. Over nine expertly crafted tracks, the group’s intoxicating back-to-nature acoustic explorations supplied the Anglo-agrarian answer to Chicago’s urbanite post-rock crowd. Tortuously though, those of us smitten with this sublime opening salvo have had to endure a painfully long three year wait for a follow-up.
Life, it seems, moves slowly in State River Widening’s non-rock world, especially when demanding day-jobs and multifarious side-projects have conspired to swallow up space in the band’s collective calendars. Furthermore, these three amigos have been hell-bent on pursuing even loftier aims for this second offering, regardless of the costs incurred in terms of time and sanity. Aims which multi-instrumentalist ringleader David Sheppard (also of Ellis Island Sound and Wisdom of Harry) outlined in conversation with your scribe recently, “We wanted to make longer pieces that evolved like organic electronic music… but with none of the digital clichés.” True to his word, cliché is something Early Music certainly lacks, as Sheppard (together with equally ambidextrous fellow-players Keiron Phelan and Jon Steele) unfurls a seven-part stream of wordless genre-meldings that see State River Widening’s sonic idiom being stretched out well beyond any self-restricting aesthetics.
The album begins brilliantly with one of State River Widening’s best moments to date, the nine-minute “New Title.” With its giddy unplugged David Grubbs-like guitars and galloping drums, “New Title” conjures the image of wild horses tearing through open fields on a gloriously sunny day. The second track, “For Hessen,” runs with the same route plan but at a less hectic pace, ambling along with low-end organs, jazzy drum fills, and folk-flavoured strumming. It takes till the third track before we get a proper taste of the trio’s stylistic realignment. Built on a bedrock of elegiac electric guitars, live drums, and gorgeous woodwind sounds (“A baritone flute and some old fashioned valve reverb,” according to the ever-informative Mr. Sheppard), “Early Music” itself captures the threesome slow-waltzing along in dreamy ambient mode, bringing to mind both Bardo Pond (albeit without the trademark guitar-wreckage) and Labradford (with a tune, that is).
The melancholic midpoint – “Zaanse Schans” – makes space for pensive acoustic-picking and sprightly-brushed drums, bringing together the lonesome tumbleweed ruminations of a late-night Calexico and the meditative melodicism of Papa M. “Highest Point on the Island,” on the other hand, swaps six-stringed instruments for all manner of unidentifiable percussion implements, in the process percolating a stunning tropical beat work-out that would have been comfortably at home on Tortoise’s overlooked 1998 album TNT. The penultimate “Blindness for the Sky” furthers the move away from the original SRW blueprint, with its languid lulling guitars and heavily-treated violin loops putting the band in close proximity of the dark ethereal dominions once ruled by former 4AD-diet staples Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil. By the closing “Softscene” – a serene of slice deconstructed-dub – it becomes abundantly clear that State River Widening have used Early Music to radically re-plough and re-divide the fertile meadows of their first album, in a painstaking quest to find the roots and seeds of some new ideologically scattered ideas.
As a series of essays on the creative possibilities of self-decreed deconstruction and resourceful reconstruction, Early Music scores highly without ever slipping into melody-free indulgence or complacent foggy notions. Its well-cultivated pastures and mysterious mountain paths hide a wealth of ideas that many lesser artists will never find let alone duplicate. Let’s just hope that the next full-length installment is a little faster off the production line, because a band this good need to be heard more than once every three years.