Boomkat Product Review:
RIYL: Steve Gunn, Black Twig Pickers, Pelt, Jack Rose, Michael Chapman, Daniel Bachman, Hiss Golden Messenger, Henry Flynt & Terry Riley.
"Since his last album Nansemond (2014), Bowles has sustained and strengthened his fruitful relationships as a ensemble player with Steve Gunn (drums, piano and organ, banjo); the Black Twig Pickers (banjo, percussion); and Pelt (struck and bowed percussion), while undertaking projects with new accomplice Jake Xerxes Fussell and old friend and mentor Michael Chapman, all of which inform this record.
But he has also continued to refine his solo practice, carrying it far beyond the confines of any reductive and rote solo banjo designations. On this third solo album, his most exquisite, immersive, and ambitious to date, he again augments his mesmeric clawhammer banjo pieces with piano, percussion, and vocals (mostly wordless, some wordy). The result showcases the full range of Bowles’ compositional and performative versatility. Instead of the programmatic place-based narratives of Nansemond, the seven songs on Whole & Cloven offer a stoic meditation on absence, loss, and fragmentation, populating those experiential gaps—the weighty interstices and places in-between—with stillness and wonder.
Whereas its predecessor was directly inspired by the mutating environment, and his mutating memories, of his childhood home on the fringes of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, the new album turns inward, exploring inscapes rather than landscapes. Since Nansemond, Bowles has moved from the mountains of Blacksburg, Virginia—his longtime home—to the Piedmont city of Durham, North Carolina, an uprooting and displacement that perhaps precipitated the divergent iterations and forking paths on display here. Album centerpiece “I Miss My Dog” contains teeming multitudes of memory and regret in its eleven vaporous minutes, crawling from stately, deep-water soundings to torrents of hiccupping, densely woven banjo and piano latticework redolent of anxious longing. It sounds like storm-blown rain.
As a whole (ahem), Whole & Cloven repeatedly swaps lenses, wide angle for macro, demonstrating a new comfort with long shots and close-ups alike. Straddling Appalachian string band music and avant-garde composition but beholden to neither idiom, Nathan proves himself heir to deconstructivist tradition-bearers like Henry Flynt and Jack Rose."