Relix reviews Balsams

Chuck Johnson: Balsams

by John Adamian on August 09, 2017

Something is happening. Americana has gone fully cosmic. This record of dreamy and ethereal, ambient, pedal-steelmusic brings to mind William Tyler’s excellent Modern Country from last year, but Chuck Johnson has taken the formula—aching strings that sound like stretches of open highway—and turned it into a slowly bubbling morphine-drip abstraction. People often talk about certain music as being angular. This is the opposite of that. It’s fully ovoid. Totally round. These sounds are reminiscent of the warm blobs of a lava lamp—organic, half liquid, half solid. It’s a beautiful, vast emptiness, a little like the musical equivalent of the flyover effect—that mind-warping insight that affects astronauts when they see the earth from outer space. The sounds of Johnson’s pedal steel barely have any attack or edge. The notes blossom and take shape with a soothing and hypnotic flow. Brian Eno would approve. But Balsams isn’t all atmospherics. Johnson has released several solo guitar records in recent years, mostly in the vein of the acoustic American primitive masters. But this is a leap—a graceful stretch, into another zone. Tracks like “Labradorite Eye” have gently climbing mini melodies that cross paths with swooping low-end washes and harmonic anchors. Some songs, like album closer “Balm of Gilead,” have glacially paced skeletal bass-note patterns from which the high-rising, almost-vocal tones of Johnson’s pedal steel ascend and curl. This is music with a metabolic rate that is fundamentally different from what we hear much of the time, but surrendering to it has plenty of rewards.

Authors: John Adamian
Artist: Chuck Johnson
Album: Balsams
Label: VDSQ