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Sarah Louise - Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars Music Album Reviews

After first gaining attention for representational acoustic beauties, the guitarist digs deeper into abstraction, until the physical trappings of her instrument largely melt away.

The Georgia-born, North Carolina-based musician Sarah Louise Henson is often associated with the American primitive style of guitar, and for good reason. Her fingerstyle playing, frequently on 12-string, runs through Appalachian folk music and John Fahey to the grassroots minimalism of Henry Flynt and Terry Riley. She plays regional folk music in the duo House and Land and remains in the Appalachian Mountains, living in a rural area an hour outside of North Carolina’s western hub, Asheville. The main recreational activities, she has said, include hiking, foraging, and gardening; she only got internet access within the past five years.

Henson displays the careful attention to craft typical of any great student of deeply rooted traditions, albeit tempered by an unconventional streak. She typically utilizes tunings of her own invention, and she is a synthesist of disparate worlds. Henson has gradually moved past the live-to-tape naturalism of her earlier recordings to explore the magic of studio artifice. “The 12-string is so orchestral that it felt like a natural leap to multi-track,” she explained of the decisions that led to last year’s Deeper Woods, in which her own layered vocals soared over acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, drums, electric piano, and the occasional synthesizer.

Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars, her second album for Thrill Jockey, marks an even greater leap, even if it looks like a step backward on paper. Composed primarily with six-string electric guitar in standard tuning, these songs are multi-tracked and electronically manipulated, fleshed out with the judicious use of voice, synthesizer, or a processed 12-string. But it is instead her most experimental album yet, a meditative foray into swirling loops and pure drone. The physical trappings of her primary instrument largely melt away.

Henson ranges widely here, testing new techniques with every song. “R Mountain,” where guitars of varying timbres are overdubbed in parallel, cuts a sneaky path between major and minor moods. The cool, wide-open harmonies suggest something of an Appalachian take on the Durutti Column’s clean-toned meditations. In “Ancient Intelligence,” a bright, unnervingly electronic pinging chirps like insects, or a hail of tinkling glass, before strummed or fingerpicked phrases take the lead, searching and melodic. Echoing 12-string tones are stretched into a seamless, shimmering drone during “Rime,” electronic delay lapping like choppy water.

The album builds toward its spiritual peak with a closing trio of raga-like pieces, all held aloft by wordless singing and peals of feedback; their almost devotional intensity (the title “Late Night Healing Choir” seems literal) is the mirror image of the album’s opener, which borrows lyrics from the Appalachian traditional “Bright Morning Stars” to turn a standard into something more like an invocation.

That opener, “Daybreak,” is accompanied by a field recording of birds—spring peepers and wood thrush, it turns out. As always in Henson’s work, nature isn’t merely window-dressing; she has something more essential in mind. The liner notes explain that wood thrush “have a double voice box called a syrinx which allows them to voice more than one note at a time”—a pertinent metaphor, perhaps, for Henson’s own explorations in overdubbing. Even at her most technologically experimental, the natural world remains her primary inspiration, and the results are as deeply felt as they are deeply moving.

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