Graded on a Curve:
Sarah Louise,
Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars

The musical profile of Ashville, NC’s Sarah Louise Henson initially derived from her skills as a fingerpicker in the American Primitive style, but membership in the duo House and Land (with Virginia fiddler Sally Anne Morgan) and 2018’s Deeper Woods established a desire to tap into broader sonic realms. Both were natural, fully realized efforts, and the same is true for her considerably bolder move into expansive avant-garde territory Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars. While surely a major development in Louise’s artistic trajectory, it’s not as radical a departure as a casual listen might suggest. It’s out now on pink vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Thrill Jockey.

In terms of musical growth, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars certainly fits onto the category of Giant Steps (capitalized but not italicized, though in terms of spirituality, there is an affinity with John Coltrane), but it’s not as if it came out of nowhere. Indeed, it seems probable that a significant portion of her fanbase will be fully receptive to the path she’s taken.

That’s because House and Land’s self-titled effort, while thoroughly informed by Appalachian tradition, was intense and restless rather than well-mannered and quaint. To the ears of this writer, it was one of the best records of 2017, with Deeper Woods gathering a similar level of esteem last year as the first of her solo albums to integrate her voice into an already robust instrumental equation.

In so doing, it was a substantial enlargement of Louise’s approach, one as likely to attract lovers of psych-folk as those smitten with her prodigious talent on guitar. But Deeper Woods, like House and Land, was a song-based collection, and the major difference here, along with a partial receding of vocals in the overall thrust, is that her prior LP was consonant with the avant-garde while Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars is a full-on expression of an experimental sensibility.

However, hers isn’t a slapdash in-one’s-face pursuit of a new direction, as opener “Daybreak,” beginning with a field recording of birdsong, would’ve fit nicely onto Deeper Woods. That means singing is prominent, but with the next track “R Mountain,” longer but still concise, there’s a shift toward the instrumental via interweaved guitar patterns, some processed others clean and quite cyclical but not rigidly so, as the piece is augmented with elements of synthesizer.

In terms of her string-focused labelmates, “R Mountain” is closer to Dustin Wong than Glenn Jones, and if unexpected, that’s totally cool. “Ancient Intelligence” expands upon this scenario through squiggles of self-sampling and sustained tones before adjusting into tangibly mystical territory that eventually gives way to tougher yet still meditative guitar lines.

A resemblance to New Age has been mentioned, and that’s not a bit off-target, but it’s much more than merely tranquil as “Rime” cozies up to the drone but with an emphasis on the celestial. The track lends cohesiveness as the record moves forward. It and “Ancient Intelligence” are longer than the first two cuts, but at four minutes each both avoid self-indulgence, with the record’s experimental reality executed with enough discipline and good judgment that the title cut’s spreading out and extension to eight minutes brings Nighttime Birds to a splendid conclusion.

But first, “Swarming at the Threshold” returns to guitar repetition and layering that in combination with a drone foundation should thrill fans of Henry Flynt (while standing comfortably outside the shadow of influence). With “Late Night Healing Choir” vocals return but not lyrics, as the piece is an immersive plunge into spiritual waters; John Coltrane was mentioned in the above parenthetical, but here, Sarah Louise gets nearer to Alice (though the observation on influence in relation to Henry Flynt applies even more here).

This precedes what at this early juncture is Nighttime Birds’ standout in “Chitin Fight,” this stature achieved through a confident mingling of repetition, the spiritual, wordless vocalizing and guitar expansiveness (with the recurring motif of manipulated sampling). Altogether, thematic unity is realized in a decidedly experimental setting.

The closing piece takes this ball and runs with it toward an endzone of blissful satisfaction, and if again recalling New Age it just as often suggests a union of kosmische and Robert Fripp (shades of Dustin Wong again) rather than people in glades wearing robes while blowing into pan flutes. And so, an utterly winning situation.

Still, some readers might be thinking a statement from this review’s introduction is wrong, specifically that this LP does represent a radical departure from Sarah Louise’s Appalachian and American Primitive beginnings. Rather than a lengthy rejoinder, here’s a concluding thought; the original, superior cover design for the three volumes of the Harry Smith-compiled Anthology of American Folk Music featured an etching by Theodor de Bry of the Celestial Monochord. Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars extends a more searching, expansive side of the modern tradition, and it’s ultimately a glorious thing.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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