Matthew Barlow: Sun Showers

Talk West: Black Coral Sprig

Talk about brand identity: the abstract-geometric covers Mark Gowing creates for Preservation's limited edition Circa series (300 CD copies of each release available) can be seen a mile away, and the moment they come into view one knows that quality music won't be far behind. In this case we're presented with two debut full-lengths of complementary character and mood from Matthew Barlow and Talk West.

Pastoral, rustic, plaintive, and, most of all, natural are the words that come to mind as I listen to Black Coral Sprig, the Talk West full-length album debut from Tulsa, Oklahoma resident Dylan Aycock. It's a disarmingly lovely collection of guitar-based music that impresses for many reasons, humility among them. Aycock isn't out to impress the listener with virtuosic displays but instead draw the listener into his bucolic world with a gentle and unhurried approach to the instrument. His music breathes with a natural grace that requires no indulgent displays of technique to make its case.

In “Light Black,” the natural and electronic worlds merge when a cello's cry rises above a shimmering backdrop of seemingly synthetic design. That scene-setter suggests that Black Coral Sprig might strike a careful balance between acoustic and electronic sounds, but in fact the balance quickly shifts to the former. Oh, sure, one presumes that Aycock's use of electronics extends throughout the album, but their presence is largely subliminal; in other words, while he's probably used advanced production techniques to layer the instruments into the arrangements heard on the album, the musical result is such that one imagines a small group of musicians gathered together and creating the material live. On “Solitary Blossoms,” for example, one imagines a pianist, woodwinds player, and percussionist interacting to create the music's dreamlike flow. In fact, “Abode,” the album's gorgeous, ten-minute closer, sounds so authentically natural, I can't tell whether it's a convincing simulation of an outdoors recording or the real thing. Here and elsewhere, Aycock purposely nurtures the natural ambiance of his material by incorporating field recordings, though he does so judiciously, with a crackling fire audible in “Solitary Blossoms” and night-time insect thrum in “Abode.”

Certain tracks, however, feature nothing more than Aycock's guitar playing, and it proves to be more than enough to satisfy the listener. In that regard, there's the lilting tapestry he weaves from multiple electric guitar patterns in “Set Adrift,” the serenity engendered by hypnotic clusters during the stately reverie “Willow and the Dogwood,” and the peaceful strums that make up “Dark White.” As I listen to the album, I find myself repeatedly feeling grateful that there's still room in our technology-obsessed world for music of its kind to exist. For that, we thank Aycock, of course, but Preservation as well.

With outdoors field recordings of birds and nature the first sounds presented on the release, Sun Showers picks up where Black Coral Sprig leaves off. Barlow, who operates the Twin Springs Tapes label, originally issued Sun Showers as a two-track set on cassette but now reissues it in an expanded four-track form for the Preservation release. Barlow apparently drew upon life in the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina as inspiration for the material, and the results certainly support the claim. Acoustic guitars are out in full force, but so too are electric guitar shadings, synth textures, and an overall hazy ambiance that strengthens the music's becalmed vibe.

The release alternates between short and long settings, with the latter two weighing in at fifteen minutes apiece and the shorter ones half that. Not surprisingly, it's the longer ones that cast the more potent spell as they afford Barlow a greater opportunity to induce a hypnotic state in the listener. With the luxury of a quarter-hour at its disposal, the title track, for example, allows its elements ample time to drift through its ultra-dense fog. Blurry vibes accents and synth washes appear alongside bird chirps, insect chatter, and nature rustlings, and Barlow even sees fit to include percussive smatterings along the way. More than anything the piece comes to resemble a river's flow in the way bits and pieces repeatedly bob to the surface of the forward-moving mass.

“Halflight” opens with the listener having taken shelter from rainfall and thunder outside and passing the time indoors with piano playing until the storm passes. With the piano accompanied by a near-inaudible synth-drone backdrop, one might find oneself likening “Halflight” to an Eno-styled ambient recording, even if Barlow's playing eschews repetition of the kind that characterizes the opening piece on Music For Airports. At album's end, “Breathing Space” returns us to the pastoral spaces of the recording's opening piece “Warm Air” though this time with more aggressive stabs by the acoustic guitar as the primary means by which to distinguish them. As with Aycock's release, the listener is challenged to determine whether Barlow created the convincing illusion of his guitar being played outdoors or literally recorded himself doing so. Such content details make Sun Showers and Black Coral Sprig a natural combination.

March 2014