Chicago Reader’s Year in Review (feat Balsams)

Peter Margasak’s 40 favorite albums of 2017, numbers 40 through 31

Chuck Johnson, Balsams (VDSQ)
I’m a big fan of Bay Area guitarist Chuck Johnson—I’ve enjoyed his expansive acoustic fingerstyle music as well as his plugged-in blues-oriented explorations—and on his latest effort, he pulls back the curtain on yet another aesthetic. Balsams is a gorgeously woozy, borderline ambient album that overflows with the enveloping, liquid tones of a pedal steel guitar. Johnson played the instrument here and there on his wonderful 2016 album Velvet Arc (Trouble in Mind), albeit in a more conventional fashion, but here his insinuating melodies ooze and crawl, filling in spaces like mercury poured across a pockmarked slab. (He adds adds textural synths with admirable subtlety.) To my ears, records that focus on atmosphere often grow tiresome, but I’m still engaged by the mesmerizing sound world of Balsams.