Graded on a Curve:
Cian Nugent and the Cosmos, Born with the Caul

Cian Nugent is a young Dubliner mainly known for his acoustic guitar prowess as one of John Fahey’s growing number of stylistic inheritors. But on Born with the Caul, his new LP in tandem with the appropriately named outfit the Cosmos, he’s completed a surprising and at-times amazing transformation. It’s psychedelic rock masterfully done, and it’s one of the best albums of the year.

Up to this point, the productivity of Cian Nugent has been pretty easy to synopsize. In a sentence, he belongs to the rich folk tradition known as the American Primitive. And placing him in this category surely isn’t as noteworthy as it used to be, since what was once a rarity on the scene, namely post-Fahey/Basho/Kottke instrumental guitar grandeur, has over the last few years become far more commonplace.

A distinguishing factor for Nugent is his nationality. And yet hailing from Ireland sets him apart only somewhat, for his status as a Euro extender of an overtly American musical phenomenon places him in the company of Englishmen James Blackshaw and C Joynes (and no doubt others I’m forgetting or don’t know), both of whom have toured with Nugent.

While of interest, the locale of these three guitarists is of no great consequence; in the end there’s really nothing that unusual about a British division of American Primitive exponents. Just as Europe picked up on jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, two indisputably American forms, and then contributed a large tide of substantial work to the canon, so it is with the children of the Takoma School.

It’s true the genre was once so thinly populated that a rather mystical aura surrounded its practitioners. They certainly seemed privy to a special knowledge. To be sure, Fahey and Basho were both unique and intriguing individuals (and this isn’t to suggest that Kottke was just an average cat), but in sharing their artistry with the world they also created a tough situation for their stylistic descendents.

To be a young and promising musician in the American Primitive style sets up an unusually high level of expectations. Playing the music especially well, which frankly requires intense levels of skill and sensitivity, can likely result in a diminished evaluation, specifically that the music is “just” especially well-played and ultimately lacking in a distinctive personality and/or the innovative qualities needed to set it apart from the crowd.

In 2011 Cian Nugent released Doubles for the VHF label, and while none of the slim number of reviews I’ve read backhanded the album as being “just” anything, they also contained a few casual hints that the guitarist was indeed “in the tradition.” I will concur that the biggest part of Nugent’s inspiration was no stumper, but Doubles impacted my ears as a little gem of a record.

Yes, its two side-long tracks did reveal the obvious influence of Fahey and the less immediately apparent but stated one of Jim O’Rourke circa Bad Timing, but in adding the well-integrated spice of a droning synthesizer during the closing minutes of “Peaks and Troughs,” and then employing organ, horns, and viola to enhance the spacious, contemplative “Sixes and Sevens,” Nugent smartly avoided the boundaries of studious imitation.

Last year’s 45 for VHF “Grass above My Head” b/w “My War Blues” featured two succinct helpings of prime Takoma-styled fingerpicking, with their combined heft raising the guitarist into the top-tier of current American Primitive specialists. However, neither cut was likely to change the mind of those stubbornly persisting that Nugent hadn’t located his “own voice.”

Methinks that Born with the Caul, an LP freshly out via the No Quarter label that finds him joining forces with a group of very impressive instrumentalists tagged as the Cosmos, will force those holding this belief into quick reassessment. It’s by no means a total break with the past, for the record opens with a slightly extended and highly augmented take of the a-side from last year’s 7-inch, but the sum of the LP’s three tracks tally into a superb interweaving of folk, rock, and sweet psychedelia.

“Grass above My Head” initially returns to the same solo luminosity as its previous waxing, though I’ll add that the subtle differences in Nugent’s delivery are immediately noticeable. But very quickly a hint of strings and brass mark this version as different, and when the drums enter the equation the tune undergoes a conversion that’s sublime.

For a few moments the music does become a tad remindful of the excellent Australian instrumental combo Dirty 3, and yet through an emotional current that’s substantially less achy and far more concerned with manifesting a gradually rising tide of beauty (maybe accurately pegged as advanced Americana), the comparison remains a modest one. Then at just short of the four minute mark the cut takes another major shift, with the pace quickening into a loose and expansive hoedown.

Nugent continues to finger up a storm in that rich folk-blues zone, reeling off a section of particularly gorgeous motion, and as the brass steps forward, “Grass above My Head” easily shirks off the burden of influence. From there the second far lengthier track “Double Horse” also begins with lone guitar, but the majority of the nearly seventeen minute duration is given over to slowly building psychedelic rock of appreciable intensity and focus.

I can’t help but think that Nugent and the Cosmos (perhaps on a very hot double bill with Sandy Bull) would’ve definitely knocked them out at The Matrix around ’67 or so, but on “Double Horse” they are only mildly suggestive of the Ballroom scene, being more drone based and tougher in execution but also slightly Eastern-kissed in the guitar department.

Furthermore, Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh’s violin, which throughout the track conjures up much of the drone action, really has no counterpart in ‘60s San Francisco. Yes, there was It’s a Beautiful Day, but David LaFlamme’s fiddle in that very likeable and undersung group is quite different from what’s going on during “Double Horse.”

As the piece develops, Nugent’s string bending is simply exquisite, confidently pushing into outbound realms while always retaining backbone and edge. To make it plain, this is heavy psych, and it’s a directive greatly assisted by David Lacey’s expressive but forceful drumming. Another huge part of “Double Horse”’s success comes down to how natural and non-beholden it is to any one prior band’s style, though I will admit that a brief spot roughly mid-way through did catch my ear as similar to East/West-era Paul Butterfield.

And that’s a fine sound to stumble onto. But it and the entirety of “Double Horse” is really just a prelude to the second side’s brilliant twenty-three minute tour de force “The Houses of Parliament.” Though some elements of the drone do surface again, this time out the music is far more rock and Bay Area derived. At first it hits like a Dirty 3/Crazy Horse merger, but along the way Nugent also gifts us with some terrific Garcia-like guitar flights.

In the ninth minute he also rips off a hunk of amp gristle that’s worthy of Neil at his most ill-tempered. Then comes a brief but non-disruptive vocal turn followed by the arrival of some welcome organ, the instrument accenting Nugent as he explores numerous subtle variations on an idea. After that everyone synchs-up into a tasty rock groove that’s like a cross between the two Grateful Dead lineups that made Anthem of the Sun and Europe ’73, but with a violin and no singing Bob Weir.

Yet it’s all spawned from a positively contempo group that have honed their interaction down to a science. No mere jam-band are they, for this stuff stings. And in terms of Cian Nugent’s growth as an artist, Born with the Caul is a revelation. As “Grass above My Head” played on first listen, I remained impressed as I continued to think of him largely in terms of the American Primitive. But as “The Houses of Parliament” ended I was blown away by a guy that in current (but classically defined) rock terms has very few peers. Then I played the record again. At the time of this writing, I’ve done so many times.

Right now I’m ruing that the days of summer have quickly vanished in the rear view mirror, for Born with the Caul would sound fantastic through the screen window of my front porch whilst lounging and sweating in the heat with a glass of something cold and nothing but the stereo for company. When the music’s this good and the vibe is that right, it’s all you need. Ah, there’s always next year.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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