Land Observations: The Grand Tour

Form and content seamlessly converge on James Brooks's latest Land Observations opus The Grand Tour. Pitched as an imaginary travelogue through Western, Central, and Southern Europe and recorded using nothing more than one electric six-string guitar, the forty-one-minute set convincingly conveys impressions of restless movement and exploration. The music alone earns the release its recommendation, but the project appeals also for the simplicity of its production approach. With the album's eight tracks presented in a warm analogue sound, Brooks shows, like others before him, that in the right hands a guitar is all that's needed. Inspired by the example of John Fahey and the artists on his Takoma label, Brooks came to realize that, in his own words, “a solo guitar could fill the sound.”

The Grand Tour isn't the debut recording by the one-time Appliance member, as it was preceded by an initial Land Observations EP for Enraptured Records and 2012's Roman Roads IV-XI full-length. The music's powerfully evocative character might also derive from the keen visual sense he developed in earning a Masters degree in Fine Art and as an exhibiting artist in galleries in London, Frankfurt, and Paris. In keeping with the historical meaning associated with the title, specifically the idea of an extensive and culturally rich trip undertaken by well-off university graduates, the album frames the journey with pieces devoted to departure and return. Along the way, flatlands and mountain passes are traversed, and cities such as Nice, Turin, Vienna, and Florence visited.

The trip doesn't begin on a lazy note but rather one charged with eagerness and optimism, as illustrated by the forward thrust of “On Leaving the Kingdom for the Well-Tempered Continent.” Here and elsewhere, Brooks generates multiple layers from his gear, such that spidery patterns form a metronomic foundation for the pastoral melodies threaded overtop. Adding to the music's range of moods and timbral richness, Brooks accentuates contrast between the layers, such that a low-pitched pattern assumes a supporting, bass-like role whereas others of a higher pitch function as lead voices.

With London behind us, “Flatlands and the Flemish Roads” sees the journey picking up speed—the flat terrain allowing for unimpeded movement—before the pace slows for a careful ascent (“From the Heights of the Simpson Pass”) that brings with it melancholic reflection. “Ode to Viennese Streets” is understandably earmarked by a pronounced ornate quality that suggests a visitor admiring the baroque style of the city's buildings. After time spent “Walking the Warm Colonnades,” we “Return to Ravenna,” refreshed from the trip and suitably informed about the sights seen.

Some artists expressly want their music to be free of extra-musical associations so as to allow the listener to respond to it as freely as possible. Brooks, on the other hand, very clearly pairs the guitar instrumentals of The Grand Tour to programmatic content though not, it must be said, to any detriment to the quality of the music nor to the pleasures one derives from listening to it.

August-September 2014