offthesky: The Beautiful Nowhere

The Beautiful Nowhere is not the first recording we've heard by Denver, Colorado-based Jason Corder, as reviews of offthesky releases on The Land Of (Creek Caught Fire) and Home Normal (Hiding Nature) appeared in these pages in the past. But to these ears, The Beautiful Nowhere is the most appealing offthesky collection yet, for a small number of reasons. Its natural character is endearing, as its directness and its melodic richness. Largely meditative and ruminative in tone, the album's ten pieces register more as songs than soundscapes, and consequently The Beautiful Nowhere draws the listener into its world with immediacy. There's also an appealing live dimension that shows up in the spontaneous and loose feel of the recording, with much of it feeling as if Corder resisted the urge to smoothen out imperfections and instead leave the tracks in a raw form.

On this album (which Hibernate has issued in a limited edition vinyl pressing of 250 and CD run of 200), Corder supplements guitar with harmonium, cello, toy piano, violin, kalimba, vibraphone, and voice, and naturally uses a modest range of gear and music production software to arrange the sounds into final form. But in contrast to his previous recordings, Corder set out to deliberately emphasize the more acoustic side of his palette and to limit the use of electronic processing techniques. The material was recorded in a remote cabin near Carter Lake, Colorado—a not insignificant detail as the setting's peaceful and pastoral qualities emerge in the recording's content. Corder also found himself influenced by the photographic work of Shelby Lee Adams, having been exposed to it via the documentary The True Meaning of Pictures. One imagines Corder immersing himself in an album of faded, 19th-century photographs of the Appalachians and its people and houses, and then channeling his responses into recorded form. In this sense, the album acts like a medium that brings those ghosts back to life, albeit in different form.

In its blend of strums and drones, the very first notes of “Surface of Your Sin” are suggestive of traditional folk music, of a form long predating the guitar-based soundscaping genre with which one might associate Corder's work. Natural ambient sounds sneak their way into the mix too, alongside the warble of a whistle and various percussive accents, and the elements as a whole achieve a kind of dreamy placidity that's light years removed from the frenetic pace of a major city. The mood isn't always sunny and pastoral, however. Storm clouds darken the horizon during “Now We're Nowhere,” with electric guitar shadings distancing the album from a purely folk style, while a gothic, haunted spirit emerges during the stately lilt of “Daydream Tarnation,” an effect helped along considerably by the addition of soft, wordless vocals to the song's measured unfolding.

Natural sounds of background clatter appear during “Whittling You Little Lights,” creating an image of Corder playing acoustic guitar on a cabin's front porch while daily chores are tended to by hired hands, and kalimba and cello find their way into the closing piece, “Born of Shy Sap,” thereby deepening its rustic character all the more. Mention must be made of the sensitive touch Corder brings to his guitar playing, whether it be acoustic or electric. In “Melt and Wander,” the guitar literally sounds as if he's speaking through it, the instrument giving voice to his emotions, while elsewhere he exploits its textural potential to enrich the material with atmosphere. That sensitivity is never more evident than during the album's most affecting piece, “Waiting to Fade,” whose crystalline figures spotlight the gentler side of the offthesky persona.

October 2011