Graded on a Curve: Imaginational Anthem Vol. XI : Chrome Universal – A Survey of Modern Pedal Steel

Individually deep and collectively cohesive, Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem series stands securely amongst the very finest surveys of instrumental guitar ever assembled. Vol. XI is the latest installment, curated by Luke Schneider and informatively titled Chrome Universal – A Survey of Modern Pedal Steel; it features nine pieces from nine different purveyors of steel guitar artistry, with the contents varied yet focused. Another way to put it is to say the instruments used are recognizably pedal steel, and yet the playing eludes expectations. The collection is out August 5 on cassette, compact disc, and digital. Vinyl is coming at a date as yet unspecified.

In his liner essay for this set, the guitarist William Tyler expands upon a youthful state of mind that is very relatable. Specifically, he writes of his fascination with musical instruments as a child, and simultaneously, his difficulty in connecting to the sound of the pedal steel. As a music obsessed kid with a similar blockage of appreciation, I know of exactly what he speaks.

This really comes down to, as Tyler elaborates, a sense of fatigue through immersion. He grew up in Nashville, where country music has long been the dominant sound. In my case, I heard little music not tagged as country until shortly before my teen years, and after soaking up The Beatles, The Stones, Hendrix, Led Zep, and Sabbath, country music, where the pedal steel was a staple if not a constant, just couldn’t match up.

Keep in mind that for me, this was well before the emergence of Alt-country and after the major names in the Outlaw Country movement had settled into a mainstream they were never really that disconnected from. But of course, times change, along with maturity and reevaluations, though what Chrome Universal is proposing is not a reassessment of country music, but a consideration of the genre-eclipsing possibilities of pedal steel.

In his short contribution to the liners, Schneider explains that upon Tompkins Square owner-operator Josh Rosenthal’s offer to curate this volume, he approached the project with the intent to spotlight players who value pedal steel’s crucial roll in country music while redefining the instrument’s potential to transcend boundaries, and additionally highlighting the assembled musician’s diversity of background.

The set opens with noted UK guitarist BJ Cole; way back when he was in Cochise while also amassing an impressive amount of credits as a session and live player, but more important to Chrome Universal is his experimentally inclined solo material. “Ely Revisited,” a captivating piece hallway between ambient and desert psychedelia, is described by the artist as an attempt to recapture the brilliance of his 1980s work with Guy Jackson as heard on the 1989 release Transparent Music (which features the track “Ely Cathedral”).

Cole’s sound on his piece is hovering and spacious but with edge; on first listen, there’s an air of mystery about it. Schneider’s desire to underscore diversity is manifest, but there is also unity in how the music is never predictable, though there is a shared inclination toward ambient and the associated genres New Age and nature sounds, with Jonny Lam’s “Rainbow Across the Valley” opening and closing with chirping birds. There are also recurring flashes of the pedal steel’s Hawaiian roots, which surface in Cole’s and Lam’s cuts; in the notes, the latter even thanks the “kingdom of Hawai’i.”

Rocco DeLuca’s entry “Many Singing Softly” takes the ambient into a darker, more contemporary place. Early on, there is a welcome affinity with the drone (thanks to the use of fiddles) as he conjures a bluesy, countryish experimental atmosphere. It contrasts sharply with the prettiness of Schneider’s “Yosemite,” which at the start reminded me a bit of Fripp and Eno’s Evening Star collab. From there, “An Ode to Dungeness” by Spencer Cullum (from Nashville by way of the UK) expands the frame, adding a drummer and even a little synth in a track that detours from ambient toward a sound resembling post-rock.

Barry Walker Jr.’s “I Will Tread Upon the Lion and the Cobra” brings a return to solo mode in a track that emphasizes the pedal steel’s propensity for slo-mo sponginess. It’s a sweet lead-in to the exquisite contribution by Susan Alcorn, who’s noted as a improvisor and composer in the current avant jazz and experimental communities, and with a prior background playing trad country and western swing. Her “Gilmor Blue,” searching yet grounded, is a stunning realization of Schneider’s objectives for the album.

Alcorn’s piece is tangibly experimental (yet organic) in nature, but Maggie Bjorklund’s “Lysglimt” gets pretty close to the alt-country core (unsurprising as she cut two records for Bloodshot), but with a restlessness that fits comfortably into Chrome Universal’s scheme. It’s an effective prelude to the reverberating spaciousness of Will Van Horn’s “Attwater,” which brings this enlightening and wholly enjoyable set full circle, and solidly extends the Imaginational Anthem series’ streak of quality.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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