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Nathan Bowles - Plainly Mistaken Music Album Reviews

Mixing a deep knowledge of regional folk traditions with a delight in modern composition, the banjo player and his exploratory new trio are delightfully suspended between earth and outer space

The daring banjo player and singer Nathan Bowles opens his fourth album with a cover of “Now If You Remember,” written by the seven-year-old Jessica Constable and first recorded 40 years ago by popstar-turned-folkie Julie Tippetts. It’s an interlude on Tippetts’ Sunset Glow, but for Bowles, it is an overture, almost like a last-week-on recap that runs before your favorite TV show. “Now if you remember, we were talking about God and you,” Bowles sings in a hushed monotone, his words buttressed by a prismatic riff split by piano and banjo. The cover slyly summarizes his first three albums in order to prepare us for Plainly Mistaken’s departure while reframing his catalog (and maybe even a century of American roots music?): God and you might just be the true subjects of every folk song that Bowles or anyone else has ever played.

Though Plainly Mistaken is rooted in specific musical traditions, these nine songs are deeply irreverent toward those traditions, too. As a banjo player, Bowles eschews the rocket-fueled runs of bluegrass players like Earl Scruggs in favor of a modified clawhammer technique that stylistically and spiritually pulls from the likes of John Fahey and Billy Faier. Rather than pluck and strum, Bowles hammers and pounds. The banjo is “a drum with strings on it. I tend to play everything percussively,” as he told Bandcamp. (Bowles has long played drums for Steve Gunn.) That’s most evident on romps like “Elk River Blues” (originally by West Virginia fiddler Ernie Carpenter) and the Bowles original “Fresh & Fairly So,” both of which move with the loping energy of a walk down a deserted gravel road.

That’s due in part to the rhythm section of Bowles’ new trio, featuring drummer Rex McMurry of Cave and bassist Casey Toll of Mount Moriah. Loose and versatile, more interested in breaking the songs down rather than keeping time, they constantly reshape and reshade Bowles’ banjo themes. They lend a rambling fervor to the winding “The Road Reversed,” as though the point of the trip were to get lost. Similarly, they infuse the bluegrass staple “Ruby” with loopy abandon, pushing Bowles to sing and play at an ever-faster gait. Based closely on the Silver Apples’ 1969 rendering of the tune, this performance sounds like it might disintegrate at any moment. Bowles seems to relish in the danger, that sense he might faceplant on his own record.

As that moment makes clear, Bowles draws just as much inspiration from avant-garde composers like Harry Partch and Terry Riley as he does from folk artists. He favors the natural drone of the banjo, the sustain of the notes over that drumhead, which he supplements with bowed cymbal and bowed bass. (Bowles also plays in the Black Twig Pickers and Pelt, bands that respectively honor old-time music and then smear it into infinite acoustic drone.) “In Kind II” sets those various hums against each other in a kind of narcotic dissonance. “Umbra” begins with Bowles slowly picking a stargazing banjo theme, then doubling and tripling it with peculiar mutations—one steady in its repetition, another that bends the notes as though Bowles were playing a sitar. The effect is quietly meditative, a bit of calm between two upbeat tracks, but there’s something slightly mysterious under the surface, as though you’re watching him astral-project.

Bowles is not the first to bridge the traditions of folk and avant garde; in fact, bridging them has become its own tradition, especially among fellow North Carolina musicians like House and Land, Jake Xerxes Fussell, and the late Megafaun. But there is something thrilling about the way Bowles lays them side by side, approaching regional folk idioms with the same curiosity he applies to contemporary composition. That pursuit allows Bowles to wring an array of sounds from his banjo, to use it as a means of getting closer to God and you. The result is his best album to date—his most mystical and earthbound, all at once.


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