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Pelt - Pearls From the River

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Artist: Pelt

Album: Pearls From the River

Label: VHF

Review date: Nov. 7, 2003

Pelt are exemplars of a particular fringe of contemporary American music ­ contemporary insofar as the insistent blurring of ethnic and temporal boundaries is a contemporary idea, and American insofar as the melting pot dream (or delusion) is an American one. It’s no doubt a swollen fringe, cluttered with sprawling CD-Rs and hurried half-statements, but the Richmond, Virginia trio’s modal tones warble and fly over much of their brethren’s din. Over the past eight years, and in variously balanced equations, Jack Rose, Patrick Best, and Mike Gangloff have toyed with drones as a sort of universal language – single sustained notes, allowed to bend infinitely in irreconcilable paradox, speaking with a singular voice and containing multitudes. Like the aural equivalent of the river that can’t be entered twice, Pelt’s drones are broad and bottomless, adorned with splashing droplets of banjo and glistening rays of tabla and esraj.

Pearls From the River is the trio’s eighth proper full-length, and it’s a more condensed statement than either 2000’s Empty Bell Ringing in the Sky or 2001’s Ayahuasca. This record’s foundations are also exclusively acoustic, so its sound is more crystalline than the murky, semi-electric waters of the last couple of full-lengths. As a result, Pearls is a fairly accessible entry-point for Pelt newcomers, though it’s no less substantial than much of their other material. Recorded across a handful of days in March, the record consists of three tracks stretching to eight, 20, and 15 minutes, respectively. Full of bowed cello that rattles the molars and 6-string guitar that presses down heavily on the chest, this is music that suggests new possibilities with every listen. Its gently modulating drones are like carefully rotating kaleidoscopes, their colorful vibrations ranging freely from East to West, connecting 1960s minimalist experiments with bristling, Indian raga and fingerstyle country blues. Rose’s virtuosic plucking – showcased most recently on Locust’s Wooden Guitar compilation and his own sophomore solo offering, Opium Musik, on Eclipse – drops clean, ringing notes like spring rain. Teamed with Gangloff’s tanpura and Best’s bowed bass, however, this is music that commands like a thunderstorm, building from the isolated, ceremonial cello notes of “Up the North Fork” to the swirling, bowed doubled bass of the eponymous raga, “Pearls From the River”. The final piece, “Road to Catawba” boasts some of Rose’s most lyrical and expressive 6-string playing yet. Wandering moodily over his frets while Gangloff and Best drone on tanpura and bass, Rose’s fingers gallop and pull-back, gallop and pull-back, before exploding into a sandstorm whirlwind that pulls the record to a magnificent finish.

There’s also, unfortunately, the pesky matter of Byron Coley’s liner notes, which mimic both the High Modernism of Eliot and the ’60s hippie-speak of Ginsberg in a kooky ploy for political engagement. Coley’s riffing is playfully facetious on the one hand and doubtlessly earnest on the other, but I’m unsure to what end; Pelt borrow across cultural and temporal lines, but the force of their sound hits without any sort of postmodern claptrap. To whatever extent theirs is a full-fledged “scene,” perhaps it’s cultural or political preoccupations could use some explication – as Coley tries to half-offer in his liners. But, on the other hand, perhaps not. This is music that’s unmistakable on a purely visceral level; it affirms that our world is full of depth and mystery, and that seems like more than enough.

By Nathan Hogan

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