Graded on a Curve:
Elkhorn,
The Acoustic Storm Sessions

With The Acoustic Storm Sessions, the NYC guitar duo Elkhorn release their sixth full-length, a companion record to The Storm Sessions, which came out earlier this year. As on that record, guitarist Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner are joined by Turner Williams (of Ramble Tamble and Guardian Alien) who also plays guitar. However, these two side-long tracks are, per the title, the first all acoustic Elkhorn recordings, documented a day prior to its acoustic-electric counterpart, and rising to the same heights of quality. Blending American Primitive string beauty, substantial raga motions and discerning psychedelic moves, it’s out October 2 on Centripetal Force in North America and Cardinal Fuzz in Europe.

The lowdown on this record and its predecessor relates to sessions that took place in Drew Gardner’s studio after a snowstorm put the kibosh on traveling to a Brooklyn venue for an eagerly awaited performance they were scheduled to give. But instead of moping, watching TV, endlessly phone scrolling or doing crosswords, this pair plus one got down to the business of spinning a positive out of a bum situation.

Hence, the name of the two excellent LPs, with the positivity extending to the listener rather than just being impromptu/ improvisational therapy for the participants. Of course, it helps that improv is already a significant aspect of Elkhorn’s equation, since the background scenario does read like a recipe for a time-filling basement jam, the kind that might sound wonderful when you’re listening to friends while lounging on the sofa and working on beer number six.

That sorta thing can make for a nice memory of your pals just totally killing it. If only somebody had recorded them…unless, somehow, it was recorded, and then, experiencing it all over again in the cold, bright, sober light of day, reality sets in. But hey, don’t go gettin’ sad, as it was still a fun night with friends…

The main difference with Elkhorn is the sheer level of fortitude in their lack of premediated moves, which keeps The Acoustic Storm Sessions’ two sides, the first breaking 20 minutes and the flip exceeding 17, from meandering, becoming excessively repetitious or just running out of creative steam. This is party due to the musical bond established by Sheppard and Gardner across their discography, but it’s also down to the range on display.

“Acoustic Storm Part 1” begins in American Primitive territory, though it’s less fleet-fingered and more contemplative and at times atmospheric than many of the style’s foundational examples. This allows for elements of raga to enter the scheme with natural flow, deepening the expansive tendencies while always keeping a loose handle on the elevated fingerpicking that opened the track.

The progression blossoms psychedelically before even hitting the halfway point, and from there unfurls a seamless stylistic weave that is spurred forth rather nicely by the mingling of three guitars. It should be noted that in addition to being their first fully acoustic record (previously, it has been Sheppard on the 12-string acoustic and Gardner with the six-string electric), on the earlier The Storm Sessions, Williams contributed electric bouzouki on side one and shahi baaja on the flip.

As I wrote back in February, that set’s two offerings reminded me of something that might’ve came out in the late ’60s on Vanguard (who released LPs by John Fahey and Sandy Bull) or ESP Disk (home of the Seventh Sons, Erica Pomerance and the Holy Modal Rounders), and this volume extends that sensibility quite impressively.

Furthermore, there is an appealing lack of rock moves in Elkhorn’s thrust, though “Acoustic Storm Part 2” does feature more strumming than fingerpicking and in turn exudes a heartier sense of the folky that helps the flip to stand out a bit. But ultimately, there’s far more in common than differences on display as the core attributes of the augmented duo’s approach are in full flower.

After three records as a pure twosome, Elkhorn added the electric guitar of Willie Lane and the percussion of Ryan Jewell to their 2019 albums Sun Cycle and Elk Jam, and to superb result. Bringing in Williams has served as a continuation of and a simultaneous variation upon the broadening of their sound, resulting in this vividly recorded (string friction is prevalent) and highly inviting yet potent gem of exceptional interaction.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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