Western Skies Motel: Settlers
Lost Tribe Sound

Though the time-worn photographs adorning Settlers' lovely gatefold cover come from the family archives of Lost Tribe's Ryan Keane, they complement the aesthetic of the music René Gonzàlez Schelbeck issues under the Western Skies Motel name, at least insofar as it's represented on this ten-song release (purchasers of the physical edition, pressed on 180g twelve-inch vinyl and available in a limited run of 170 copies, also receive a download for the six-song bonus EP, Generations). Though the guitarist hails from Denmark, the instrumentals on the album fluently speak the language of the rustic American West.

“Falling Leaves” sets the tone for the release beautifully with Schelbeck building layers of fingerpicked patterns into a hypnotic, crystalline whole. The sonorous effect of the guitars woven together is dazzling, and the music, especially when bell tinklings are added, verges on magical. Though Settlers is primarily a guitar album, it's far from the only instrument sound heard: Schelbeck deftly augments guitar playing with percussion, strings, and piano, resulting in expansive arrangements resplendent in colour and texural detail. It's worth noting that even though acoustic guitar is prominently featured, electric is present, too.

Entire worlds are contained in the individual settings, and they're anything but single-instrument affairs. In fact, one such as “Two Worlds” swells to such a dense roar that the acoustic guitar recedes from view almost entirely, and the peaceful, album-closing “After a Storm” wraps its transporting ambient-styled soundworld around an arrangement from which acoustic guitar is noticeably absent. The classical style of guitar picking in “Migratory Birds” feels worlds removed from the American Primitive tradition, yet there are a few rough-hewn moments on the album that do suggest some connection to the style. With back porch noises seeping into its sparse arrangement, “Garden,” for example, could be a setting played by an American fingerpicker as much as one from Denmark.

There's an elegance and refinement to Schelbeck's playing that aligns him naturally to the British folk tradition (when the cyclical patterns of “Whirl” appear, one almost expects to hear Nick Drake's voice enter instead of the instrumental strings and harmonium-styled wheeze that actually do emerge). And yet, despite that, Settlers exudes an undeniably American aura, perhaps due to the impact of its visual presentation as much as anything else. Distinguished by its sepia-toned, matte finish and photos of Keane family elders and the early twentieth-century Montana landscape, Settlers makes a strong impression on visual grounds alone.

Generations, it turns out, is no insignificant addendum to Settlers but a twenty-two-minute set that holds up impressively on its own terms, even if it's material that perpetuates the style and tone of the long-player. The arrangements are as methodically worked-out on the EP as on the album, and the arrangements are as rich in colour, too. “Empty Rooms” makes good on its title by conjuring the loneliest of moods, and, like “After a Storm,” the keyboards- and electric guitar-inflected psychedelia of “Myriads” distances itself dramatically from anything one might label acoustic guitar-based folk. Differences in medium notwithstanding, the two recordings are best thought of as equally integral parts of the whole, especially when any of the songs on the EP could have fit just as comfortably on the album.

March 2016