Graded on a Curve: William Tyler
and Luke Schneider, “Understand”

Based in Los Angeles by way of Nashville, guitarist and songwriter William Tyler is well-known for his contributions to Lambchop and Silver Jews, and more recently for a string of ambitious instrumental solo albums. On the 4-song EP “Understand,” he collaborates with pedal steel ace Luke Schneider, who currently hangs his hat in Nashville with credits including Margo Price, Caitlin Rose, and Orville Peck, and with a budding solo career of his own. A tidy and fresh mingling of ambient and Krautrock influences, “Understand” is available on limited edition cassette (250 copies) and digital July 12 through Leaving Records.

Although “Understand” was recorded in one day in a Nashville studio during the pandemic 2020, the collaborative fruits of William Tyler and Luke Schneider run deep, as the latter lends his skills to the former’s second and third full-length solo records, specifically 2013’s Impossible Truth and ’16’s Modern Country, both terrific, and additionally, the no less nifty EP “Lost Colony,” which dates from 2014, all three released by Merge.

There are a few moments across Tyler’s discography that forecast the direction the duo has taken on “Understand,” but the primary artifact of precedent is Schneider’s solo debut, Alter of Harmony, released by Third Man a year ago last May, with all of its sounds made by Schneider on a 1967 Emmons Push/Pull pedal steel guitar.

That Schneider goes it alone rather than basking in the spotlight accompanied by a band might read as an unusual choice for a pedal steel guitarist, but then again, after learning that Alter of Harmony is a New Age album, perhaps not. The best part of the whole scenario is that Schneider, as stated in an article published by Bandcamp last year, was shooting to make a private-press-style New Age record, which means its contents are as edgy and weird as they are meditative and expansive.

“Understand” launches from Alter of Harmony’s template and then diversifies considerably with the substantial input of Tyler. Taking its title from a short story of the same name by science-fiction author Ted Chiang, the EP features guitars electric and acoustic, synthesizer and bass played by Tyler as the pedal steel and banjo are handled by Schneider.

“Memory Garden” opens the set with a decidedly retro-futuristic synth vibe blanketed in tape hiss. But in short order, ripples of guitar distortion emerge, gradually growing in agitated intensity toward a scorching, almost jet engine-like peak, only to level off into a dark ambient rumble that glides and glistens and soars and then gradually drifts away near the end, as the hissing of tape returns.

In “The Witness Tree,” the pedal steel rises to the fore, although it unfurls cyclically in tandem with an unflagging programmed rhythm, this combo further complimented with sound swirls hinting at kosmische but with tangible bite. Along the way, with a subtle shift, the pleasantness of this repetition attains a heavier pulse. Near the finale, there is another retreat into distance, as the audio becomes increasingly muffled and then dissipates.

“No Trouble” is the EP’s grandest beauty move, the sort of tune that is sure to sound near perfect while soaking up the sunshine of summer on an early morning after an all-nighter and before the temperature gets too uncomfortable. Tyler and Schneider achieve this through the intertwining of their main axes, the sound hovering but with a crucial touch of the melodic.

Early on, the track recalls Yo La Tengo at their most introspective and tender, e.g. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, and with an achy prettiness reminiscent of that band’s “Stupid Things,” but then the pedal steel carries the tune in its own direction. It sets the stage for closer “The Going Through,” with Schneider’s banjo showcased, but in terms of sustained melodiousness rather than dexterity and reminding me a bit of the defunct North Carolina instrumental band Shark Quest (if they had a hankering for the atmospheric).

One facet William Tyler and Luke Schneider share with Shark Quest (which featured guitarist Chuck Johnson and multi-instrumentalist Sara Bell) is musicianship that’s expert but unstrained. As the intersecting genres of ambient, neo-Krautrock and New Age continue to burgeon, so does the percentage of stuff in those categories that’s barely passable. Through chops, taste and shared vision, “Understand” is a few notches above. How about a full LP, fellas?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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