Balmorhea: Self-Titled [Re-mastered 2014]
What's most interesting about Balmorhea's debut, which core members Rob Lowe and Michael Muller recorded in Austin, Texas in 2006 and self-released in 2007 (and which Western Vinyl is now releasing in a re-mastered form and on vinyl for the first time), is that the group's distinctive chamber-folk sensibility already was in place at the start. Naturally, there are differences between the Balmorhea sound then and now: in terms of instrumentation, the debut centers on acoustic instruments such as piano, banjo, and guitar, whereas today the group's sound, fleshed out as it is by more musicians and an enriched orchestral palette, is expansive by comparison. Listening to the debut, it also becomes clear that the humility that characterizes Balmorhea and distinguishes it from others likewise was present from the beginning. Throughout its tenure, Balmorhea is a group that has eschewed grandstanding and played loud when the music demanded it as opposed to doing so for reasons of ego gratification.
In general, the music's tone is heartfelt and direct and suffused with characteristic humanity and warmth; the style is largely pastoral, even if the dominant acoustic-folk character of the music assumes a modernized quality through the incorporation of experimental treatments and textures. The acoustic finger-picking that sashays through “A Circumnavigation” presents Balmorhea at its most pure and uncluttered, while “Dream of Thaw” similarly uses nothing more than acoustic guitars to bring its delightfully singing melodies to life. The emotional intensity in certain moments rises passionately, perhaps during the dramatic piano setting “If You Only Knew the Rain” more than anywhere else. Adding to the material's pastoral quality is the fact that the outdoor sounds that do appear are nature-related rather than urban-industrial sounds. In quintessential fashion, a plaintive piano melody intones against a backdrop of summer rain during “Attesa,” while the finger-picking and piano playing that spring forth so joyously within “En Route” are serenaded by cricket thrum and water sounds.
The material often suggests that the recording happened during a key time in the developmental process of Lowe and Muller's music-making, the moment when they supplemented the skills they'd developed as instrumentalists with the exciting sound potential that electronic production techniques had begun to make available to those with adventurous and experimental sensibilities. In that regard, a representative piece such as “And I Hear the Soft Rustling of My Blood (As if Snow Were Sliding Down the Mountains)” builds upon its its core banjo and piano playing with electronic textures and static-laden voice transmissions, whereas “In the Rowans” emphasizes typewriter clicks and piano sounds in equal measure, the two at times barreling forth toe-to-toe.
In conjunction with the reissue, Balmorhea is releasing two new songs on a limited-edition seven-inch disc titled HEIR. And though the single is a mere ten minutes in length, it still allows for an interesting study in comparison between the Balmorhea of eight years ago and the band today. The opening moments of “HEIR I” show, for example, a pronounced emphasis on textural design, even if electric piano chords and an insistent bass pulse manage to quickly shift the attention to conventional instrument sounds. In classic Balmorhea fashion, the music gradually gains in emotional heft and dramatic sweep as the arrangement builds with the addition of vibes and violin. In fact, the piece promises so much pleasure, one wishes Balmorhea had extended it into a ten-minute setting so that its dramatic potential could have been exploited further. “HEIR II” also opens softly, this time with subtly treated ukulele playing and plaintive string accents, but parts company with the opener when it transforms halfway through into an uptempo throwdown powered by aggressive string melodies and drums. Though brief, HEIR nevertheless provides a wondrous snapshot of the band in its current incarnation.