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Sarah Louise - Deeper Woods Feel Music Album Reviews

Sarah Louise - Deeper Woods Feel Music Album Reviews

On her third solo album, North Carolina guitarist Sarah Louise Henson steps beyond her vivid acoustic work and into a realm of glowing studio experimentation and layered vocals.

Deeper Woods, the third solo album by North Carolina-based guitarist Sarah Louise Henson, picks up where her previous work left off and lingers there for all of 60 seconds. Opening track “Bowman’s Root” begins with the intricate, fingerpicked 12-string acoustic that fills the two previous full-lengths she released as Sarah Louise and the high, clear singing that marked last year’s self-titled debut of House and Land, her duo with multi-instrumentalist Sally Anne Morgan. But, as the first minute of the song winds up, Henson begins harmonizing with herself, and an alto recorder traces out hidden threads. Soon, feedback and drums float up, and the harmonies rise even higher, as if sung from a cloud.

Sarah Louise hasn’t gone electric on Deeper Woods—though there are both drums and electric guitar on the album—so much as broadened her ambitions. A gifted and expressive solo guitarist, her instrumental work (like that of other great guitar soloists) has always relied on a keen sleight-of-ear vocabulary: She has the ability to conjure worlds between notes. Her instrumental 12-string guitar album for Vin Du Select Qualitite, 2016’s VDSQ Solo Acoustic Vol. 12, conjured jeweled landscapes that unfolded in constantly renewing wonder.

A bold step forward for Henson, these new compositions underscore both the uniqueness and the expansiveness of her musical voice. Some solo guitarists (like Steve Gunn) have transformed into the centers of high-energy rock bands and others (like Ryley Walker) have assembled groups to follow their jazz-prog muses, but Henson’s new album holds on to the hushed glow of the previous Sarah Louise releases, a sense of nighttime quiet far from the city lights.

While traditional folk harmonies sometimes appear in the overtones, the album is filled with thoroughly modern surprises. The rural kosmische-pop track “When Winter Turns” features a hypnotic rhythm section and Henson’s own Crazy Horse-style electric six-string guitar jags. The closer, “Fire Pink and Milkweed,” is entirely a cappella, a vivid sound poem made of layered voices. In a previous critical epoch, Deeper Woods might have been called “freak-folk,” but to use any derivative of “freaky” to describe it is to ignore its careful construction.

Nearly every song enchants. Linked by images of natural forces and the swarming growth of a living Earth, the album luxuriates in organic sounds that complement Henson’s words. Only the electric-piano-and-synth-driven “The Field That Touches My House and Yours” feels out of place, as though the sky has turned some unsettling color and the laws of physics have shifted. Everywhere else, the music is unified, as if the pieces were grown in the same flower bed, from seeds of unknown plants, each one blooming in a different shape. No matter what Henson adds, her guitar remains at the deepest center of the songs.

“Pipevine Swallowtails” offers the album’s most intricate flowering. Sally Anne Morgan’s fiddle and the warm, vibraphone-like tones of an electric piano wrap around the hypnotic acoustic guitar melody as Henson’s voice stacks itself and jumps octaves. Nothing on Deeper Woods is predictable; Henson creates no musical formulas to follow, choosing instead to follow a vaguely defined path that might not be a path at all. Overflowing with first-person narrative and ecological parable—and often without obvious choruses—the lyrics feel well-tilled, too, borne by music beguiling enough to listen to until the words take root.

If the record exchanges the uncompromising, diamond-sharp eloquence of VDSQ Solo Acoustic Vol. 12 for a more complex and sometimes imperfect vision, it also enhances the singularity of Henson’s previous work, marking Sarah Louise as a musician who’s bound to keep moving. Deeper Woods is a new place she has found. “There I sat in wonder/There I sat listening,” she sings on “Bowman’s Root”—and, while those lyrics are certainly an invitation for the listener to do the same, it’s also easy to see why they’re in the past tense. The deeper woods are right here waiting, but Sarah Louise might already be gone.

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