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Nathan Salsburg - Third Music Album Reviews

The guitarist’s latest album features almost nothing but the sweet sounds of his instrument. You’ll know within its opening notes whether this music is for you—and if it is, you’ll feel instantly at home.

The best modern guitar albums do one of two things: They either change the way you think about the instrument or brilliantly reinforce what you already know. Artists who take cues from avant-garde music, like Daniel Bachman and Sarah Louise, are often behind works that fall into the former category. They use the guitar less for its melodic potential than as a conduit to new atmospheres—to echo and drone and crescendo. The second category leads to more accessible triumphs, and it’s in this territory that Louisville native Nathan Salsburg reigns. There’s nothing really to get on his records; their thrill is in hearing something so gorgeous and intuitive executed with new energy.

In a field crowded with talent, Salsburg stands out for his quiet gift for melody and his deep connection to the past. (He currently serves as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity.) His two previous solo albums are open, autumnal, and pristine. As I’ve moved into new apartments, his records have been the ones I’ve consistently played first; they have a purifying effect, like burning sage. With the plainly titled Third, Salsburg has made his purest, sweetest music yet, which is a notable achievement. The record runs 35 minutes and features almost nothing but the sound of his guitar: no overdubs or guests, no mid-album experiments, no singing. You will know within the opening notes of “Timoney’s” whether this music is for you—and if it is, you will feel instantly at home.

Salsburg’s songwriting works in increments. Flowing in repetitive, ascending waves, his melodies are fluttering and lyrical and hammered-on like limericks. It’s a sound that’s equally unadorned and intricate—bountiful, with not a thought wasted. As an accompanist, Salsburg has made this style equally compatible with Joan Shelley’s spacious odes to serenity and with the wordy thought spirals on the last Weather Station album. But in his own compositions, adding lyrics would feel redundant. He can conjure dramatic shifts in tone with just a pregnant pause of his right hand. In multi-part songs like “Ruby's Freilach/Low Spirits” and the elliptical “Exilic Excursions,” you can practically feel the deep inhale before he picks up and changes direction.

Listening to Third, it’s possible to imagine these songs unfolding as one uninterrupted breath, like he pressed “record” and didn’t stop until the mood passed. The album’s production, crystal clear and close, adds to this immediacy. In songs like the beatific “Walls of the World,” the artist he most reminds me of is Windham Hill founder William Ackerman, a guitarist whose music is so serene and soothing that he’s sometimes credited with founding the New Age genre. Yet on Third, this breeziness belies the intricacy with which each song is composed. “Planxty Davis,” a new arrangement of a traditional Irish folk song, fits in seamlessly with his own material. Brief closer “Offering”—which features the album’s sole foreign sound, a recurring rush of noise that could be a passing car or a distant wave—surges with such familiarity that you could imagine it blossoming into a classic-rock ballad. He touches on modern influences and music as ancient as the instrument itself, but Salsburg’s greatest skill is his ability to make his playing sound like a sudden thought he’s sharing just with you.

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