Regardless of where you hear the new Sonny Landreth record, you are going to be incredibly pleased, and maybe a little surprised. In the past, the bayou bred musician has generally stuck close to his roots, albeit a lively stew of roots which encapsulate Cajun music, zydeco, blues, and sophisticated funk. While these elements all make appearances on Elemental Journey, be prepared for an album that is closer perhaps to a blend of classic rock melody and progressive modern composition. It is as if Landreth has taken an oral oath of silence, and in exchange has been granted the ability to produce what his music has always suggested but never quite delivered. Please, do not read this as a criticism of the guitarists' earlier work - if anything, his discography has always been just ahead of the curve, maybe a bit too sophisticated for a broader audience. No, what I am attempting to say is that with this album, Landreth has moved forward exponentially, and has delivered a masterpiece that not only transcends his past six-string wizardry in terms of sheer technical and musical prowess, but one that will be as easily embraced by the casual listener as it will be intriguing to the readers of the guitar monthlies.
Joe Satriani appears on the opening track, Gaia Tribe, and I was immediately concerned that such a grand marquee name would be on display right out of the gate, not to mention that Satriani and Landreth's worlds have never seemed to come close to the same orbit in the past. It turns out that my concerns were completely unjustified.
"When I first heard Joe's solo," Sonny recalls, "I went, 'This is incredible! I love it, but it just comes out of nowhere - how am I going to make it fit?' After talking to Joe, I realized this was a great opportunity to raise the bar creatively. That's when I decided to double the surprise factor and have the strings make their first appearance for the album in the middle of his solo. The next thing I know, a song that started of as a simple surf thing had become this wild ride of an epic piece, and one of my favorite productions."
"That exposure is something I've never incorporated like I have this time. Once I did that performance for them, I knew it would be a part of the next album. That sealed the deal for me to make an instrumental album. Once I started working on the string arrangements with my friend Sam Broussard, who did a brilliant job, that just took it to another level!"
For You and Forever is the album's second track and a wonderful example of both the liberal use of strings, and the smooth sophistication of Landreth's compositions and arrangements. A sultry, slinky piece that ably displays his method of establishing a melody, then surprising the listener with the aforementioned twists and turns which are instilled without leaving behind a tune's heart and soul. Here, the string arrangement cascades from accompaniment that recalls George Martin's Beatles charts to almost Middle Eastern modalities. Their gentle beauty and Landreth's syncopated funk swap roles in a way one wouldn't think would work, but they compliment one another gloriously. Drummer Doug Belote's playing is mesmerizing - his creativity and technical mastery are a driving force as he manages to keep the guitarist and the strings from colliding or clashing. Magnificent.
Wonderide is just that. As Landreth takes off on a familiar zydeco type trip back home, he defies his past and introduces some fabulous fusion-y escapades that would not sound out of place on a Steve Morse record. Then, out of nowhere, a moody and Germanic sheet of orchestration arrives on the scene, underpinned by some great arpeggios by the guitarist. This genre hopping would and should not work were it not for Landreth's amazing compositional chops, which he has always hinted at, but never dealt so explosively. To call this music ambitious is a huge understatement. This is unlike anything he has done to this point, but read this not as a criticism - it is a brave step in a new direction of a musician's lifelong journey.
Eric Johnson is another guitarist whose presence could dim the light being shined on most guitarists, but he has worked with Sonny Landreth over the years in a great many settings, and scenarios, and his contribution on Passionola is the perfect example of a duet, and not a duel. Johnson may be the only player I can think of who is as meticulous in both his tone and his note selection as is Mr. Landreth. Their dialogue here is full of exciting moments that will have both longtime fans and new listeners astonished. This tune is a knucklebuster that goes down like a well made cappuccino - smooth, with a hint of creamy sweetness, and no bitter aftertaste.
Letting Go is a meditative piece that suggests that Landreth is speaking loudly through his oral oath of silence. His playing becomes more expansive and expressive as the tune progresses, throwing wave after wave of shimmering slides and delay soaked arpeggiated forays that manage to speak volumes of pure emotion.
Elemental Journey is truly world music - maybe Universal music. The title track is a fusionesque discourse that brings back fond memories of those halcyon days when a great jazzy rock band could easily fill a large auditorium. The band is a bedrock of solid foundation, with organist Steve Conn layering on lovely slabs of Hammond seasoning that allows Landreth to dance magically, dare I say erotically over the top. This is a seriously sensual and near mystic song that changes tempos and structures so smoothly that you find yourself in the movie, an actor in the play. The interplay between the musicians is a thing of wonder as Landreth leads them effortlessly around the globe.
Robert Greenidge? Not exactly a household name, but the man is a superstar. He's long been a member of Jimmy Buffet's band, he has also graced records by Taj Mahal, JJ Cale, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon.
Sonny Landreth says, "Robert Greenidge, my goodness. Here's the thing about him -- he's the master steel drummer. You've heard him on tons of records. The first time I ever heard steel drums, it was him on a Taj Mahal album. I didn't even know what steel drums were, I had never heard them. This was a long time ago. I thought, 'My god, what a masterful sound!'"
Greenidge's Trinidadian pan drums provide a marvelous Caribbean travelogue on Forgotten Story - but before his arrival, Landreth and band have already laid out a cinematic backdrop that suggests that one can get from the bayous of Louisiana to Jamaica via water and wind. They never seem to touch ground until Sonny kicks in the overdrive and drummer Mike Burch lays down a steady four on the floor that rides out the tune. They make it all sound so easy, but the virtuosity is amazing when you listen for it.
What may be most impressive about Elemental Journey is the sheer breadth of Landreth's musical vocabulary. He's long been known for his astounding technical wizardry on the guitar, but with this album he mightily transcends his past achievements. His compositional skills seem to have blossomed considerably in the face of facing the task of an all instrumental outing.
Opening Sky rounds out the program with a Beckian nod of the hat to mystic melodicism. He gently puts to bed one of the most impressive instrumental records I have heard in a great many years. Landreth enters the realm of superstardom with this album. It will find its way onto many top 10 lists, and everyone who contributed to this fantastic slab of sound is deserving of great congratulations.
Elemental Journey is out on May 22nd on Landfall Records - http://www.sonnylandreth.com/discography.php?album=elemental_journey
Special thanks to Cary Baker at Coqueroo and Landfall Records!