Friday, May 18, 2012

Sonny Landreth - Elemental Journey - Eloquence Without A Word

If you plan on driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with Sonny Landreth's Elemental Journey in the CD player, and I highly recommend that you do, please buckle up and watch your speed. You may just find yourself violating state code, if not lifting off completely. This is Landreth's first all instrumental album, but more importantly, it is the album that sees the six-string slide wizard come into his own as a serious composer, and one that has Sonny speaking more clearly with music than he ever has with words.

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.

Elemental Journey will take you places you are not prepared to go, but that's not to say that you will not be thrilled by the trip. I have always found Landreth to be an engaging, emotional vocalist, and a better than average lyricist, but I honestly don't miss the presence of vocals here. Instead of following the paths he has led us down lyrically in the past, we are now free to determine not just what the title may indicate, but also what the melodies and changes may mean. The music is incredibly cinematic and suggestive. Landreth has perhaps become the Renoir, or perhaps, the Rachmaninoff of the blues. He's creating sceneries and evoking emotions with his elaborate soundscapes throughout.

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.

Gaia Tribe comes out sounding like it is gliding across Mother Earth herself with a driving rhythm that suggests memories of the best of Mark Knopfler's days in Dire Straits. Landreth sounds a little sleeker, a little more muscular than he has on records past, more confident and self assured. My new age side wants to wonder if his kundalini coils have not awakened and connected the guitarist to his higher self. It is as if something in the past was inhibiting his full bloom of artistry and now the veil has been lifted. Landreth steps on the gas as the solo section begins, and his tone is brawny, his command astounding. His slide figures are fearless (even more so than in the past), and his single string lead work is sizzling. It's curious that when Satriani enters the picture, he dovetails almost perfectly with Landreth's preceding section - something I had not expected. I understand that Satriani threw down his solo in a rapid fashion, but it works beautifully. The Chickenfoot fire is on display, yet Joe's melodic sensibilities somehow always manage to shine through, and even his wild whammy bar antics, and two hand tapping do not collide with Landreth and his band's mission. Bassist Dave Ransom has been with Landreth for decades, and his playing is a huge part of this record. Unpredictable, melodic, and driving, Ranson provides the perfect basis for Landreth's flights of fancy. Maybe the most amazing part of Gaia Tribe is the realization that Sonny Landreth has exploded into a realm in which even Joe Satriani's fire cannot outshine the Louisiana wunderkind.

"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."

And the strings.... Before we get any further, I must mention that throughout the record, Landreth has done a fantastic job of incorporating a string section across much of the album, built upon the inspiration of performing the Bach piece, Cantata 140, with the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra under the direction of world renowned conductor Mariusz Smolij. In an interview with Mike Ragogna for the HuffPost, Landreth had this to say:

"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!"

Landreth, Broussard, and Smolij's collaboration is outrageously effective - not the clumsy type of orchestrating that occurs so often when a rocker attempts to use orchestral instrumentation, but rather as an integral part of the compositions that provide some stunning plot twists and turns, as well as providing a tremendously emotional underpinning that often suggests a chorale. When I hear the strings kick in, I remember thinking, "Where did those come from?," followed immediately by, "Wow, how very cool!" There are a great many structure and chord changes on nearly every song, and this group has managed to make them work at every turn.

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.

It's essential to mention that Landreth, who undoubtedly has made the album of a lifetime, is assisted by an amazing set of collaborators. He's worked with bassist Ranson, and keyboardist Steve Conn for many years, albums, and tours, and without them this accomplishment would simply not be possible. I compare this album to that of another guitar star who has a record coming out this week, and the differences are marked. This other guitarist works with a largely rotating cast in the studio, and the absence of coherency and collaboration are immediately apparent. Even utilizing some of the finest talent one can combine in a recording studio, there is not the depth of experience that comes from working together night after night for many years, and the music reflects that. Landreth's record is a constant wonder, the truly beautiful work of a solid team.

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.

From Landreth on his website. "On ‘Wonderide,’ you can hear some of Clifton Chenier’s Creole influences and then it morphs into a classical motif with the strings playing more complex changes,” Sonny points out. “When I started experimenting with it, I realized that the tempo for a good zydeco groove could easily transition into the fingerpicking style of phrasing found in classical guitar music. Then it was a matter of adding the strings to give it more depth with tension and release, expanding the overall sound.”

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.

“One of the things I’ve always loved about a good instrumental song is that it can be more impressionistic and abstract,” Landreth notes. “Though melody is always important, it’s even more significant with an instrumental. So what I wanted to achieve was something more thematic with lots of melodies and with a chordal chemistry that was harmonically rich. That’s when I got the idea to treat the arrangements with more layering and to have the melodies interweave like conversations. I also wanted it to be more diverse, to not adhere to any categories. I wanted to leave it wide open to possibility.”

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.

One of the beautiful things about Landreth's work is how melodic his compositions are, and yet at the same time they are so completely unfamiliar to the ear of even the most experienced listener. His guitar slides in, around, above, and beyond the string section on Brave New Girl, often sounding more like a sleek saxophone than the Southern slide guitar legacy of the Deep South. The achingly beautiful and soaring crescendos of slide guitar on this cut had me repeatedly rewinding and wondering not just how he dreamed up such glory, but also just how he managed to execute these wonderfully adventurous ideas.

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.

Reckless Beauty is probably the most familiar sounding track on the record for Landreth fans, although the man is still playing as if he may have been abducted by a fleet of extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Dick Dale.

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 -

Special thanks to Cary Baker at Coqueroo and Landfall Records!

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