State River Widening: Cottonhead
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The river is wide but it's deep too, judging by the ten tracks that comprise State River Widening's Cottonhead. London-based multi-instrumentalists David Sheppard, Keiron Phelan, and drummer Jon Steele are joined by Pam Ribbeck's strings and Howard Monk's percussion on the group's third full-length following 1999's eponymous debut and last year's Early Music. The result is an intricate brand of post-rock that blends acoustic and electric guitars, strings, harpsichords, electric pianos, and drums into pulsating weaves of predominantly acoustic sound. Even better, solos are kept to a bare minimum in these through-composed pieces but the music is never so predetermined that it sounds constricted or claustrophobic.

An obvious affection for Steve Reich enhances the post-rock vibe. “Touched,” for example, pairs celeste-like Reichian tinklings with insistent guitar picking and string bowings, while “Desertesque” comes across as a virtual tribute to the American composer, so reminiscent are its interweaving marimbas and shimmering glockenspiels of his Music For 18 Musicians style. Whether intentionally or not, the hypnotic filigrees of guitar glimmers in “Lowlands” recall Robert Fripp's similar glissandi in “Swastika Girls” from his No Pussyfooting collaboration with Eno.

State River Widening has a soft spot for dreamy pieces, evidenced by “Crown,” an elegiac prelude flavoured with see-sawing violin bowings, and “Cottonhead 2,” a delicate harpsichord-flavoured postlude, but the group can also play more aggressively when the mood strikes. In “Cottonwood,” drums appear halfway through to elevate it to a more ferocious level, while the exotic noises in “Knifegrinders Song” intensify to raw, almost cacophonous proportions. “Madder Hues,” the longest and arguably most accomplished piece, moves through three stages during its eight minutes. The distinctive twang of an electric guitar contrasts with bright glockenspiel sprinkles and acoustic guitars during the opening. Following this, the electric guitar drops out, allowing the other instruments to conjure a sensual mirage before the twanging guitar returns. While it's a masterfully executed piece, it's but one highlight of many on this accomplished and meticulously arranged recording.

September 2004