14 Apr Album Review – Bryan Russell-Lowe – Circumnavigate
In a world that has come to be characterized by formulaic, cynical music pushed upon us from every angle, it is a rare and refreshing event to come across an emerging artist who seems not disaffected, but unaffected, by any hollow commercial zeitgeist.
As a connoisseur of the fairly recent “virtual” or streamed open mic scene, I have come across some shockingly amazing work, but in toto, the offerings can be hit-or-miss. On one hand, you have the immutable tendency of acoustic guitar open mic dudes to break into a Tom Petty or Beatles song that has been on the radio every day for 50 years straight, at the slightest provocation, which never fails to make me click off the tab within seconds. And on the other hand, you have Bryan Russell-Lowe.
Recently, I saw a new face on an Arizona-based virtual open mic that I browse, as well as a particularly beautiful dark-wood acoustic, and I decided to click through. Bryan had helpfully included the list of songs he planned to play: Sturgill Simpson, Wood Brothers, Drive-By Truckers: unabashed, emotionally charged, sometimes psychedelic country and folk music.
Bryan kicked off with “Oh Sarah” by Simpson, enunciating the chords just like a veteran session musician. Next, his clear, strong, plaintive voice cut through the mix with palpable conviction; it’s hard to give someone chills through their phone speaker. More importantly, the original songs that he included were just as redolent with emotion and creativity as anything that he played from those more established names on the scene.
As any savvy musician must, Bryan had included a link to his website, where I was happy to discover that he had released Circumnavigate, which is his first LP of original music under his own name, just this past December. Being primed for the experience, I decided to jump into the record that same night, just as soon as I was at home with my headphones.
Circumnavigate is a folk/Americana record, but it is far from sparsely rendered. Russell-Lowe’s acoustic guitar is layered deeply at the heart of all of the songs, but he and his friends have also enriched many of the tracks with bold, overdriven slide leads, often reminiscent of the late master Jason Molina. The recent work of Will Oldham as Bonnie “Prince” Billy comes to mind at some of the lighter and more pastoral arrangements, such as the early highlight “Faults” with its skipping acoustic arpeggios and swirling, distant Hammond accompaniment, as well as “Substitute.”
The album kicks off with “Let Me Down Easy,” a bold left-field meditation punctuated with tabla. Russell is not afraid to experiment with cross-genre modulation, as the song shifts to a series of syncopated rock bridges with a shoegaze country feel. Though he does not always sell out on his vocals to make sure they are crying in the back row, there is an echo of Galaxie 500’s brokenhearted heroism.
“Enough” leaps out of the gate with a lush tremolo Telecaster, and its rhythm quickly detours into startling rubato turns, teasing its way into a show-stopping instrumental outro that left me breathless. The title track’s daring prosody and soaring slide work are directly in the spirit of the revelatory Magnolia Electric Co. work of Molina, and Russell’s voice grows in power as he delves further into the depths of his metaphors. It’s a killer song, and at over seven and a half minutes in length, it is another indication of the artist’s fondness for taking a risk.
The album’s late section has some of its most relaxed and evocative moments, with “Falling Stars” and “A Little Crazy” aiming somewhere toward the towering and yet chilled-out sonic grounds occupied by The Tallest Man On Earth, et alia, and succeeding commendably. “Nana” is a ripping instrumental workout for guitar, harp and a meandering slide that defies comparison; “The Breeze” follows with a propulsive, jazzy progression.
Album closer “Breathe as One” is artfully positioned to bring it all home. By far the finest vocal performance on an album with several excellent ones, the ache in Russell-Lowe’s voice is undeniable, and the patient accompaniment brings out the bright shades of its pathos. His lyrics bring to mind both Blaze Foley and Great Lake Swimmers, among other leading lights of oracular Western folk. This is my favorite song on the album, and it is also the most direct and succinct mission statement that the artist makes over the course of his ten songs.
Though it does require patience and close listening (this is not a party record, and it favors headphones over any Bluetooth speaker) this is a fascinating first look at Russell-Lowe’s burgeoning creative process. This may not yet be the album that seats him at the NPR Tiny Desk, but it also very well could be: a number of these songs would be right at home on any modern Americana radio program, and the phone lines would certainly be ringing with people asking “What was that song you just played?”
Songwriting: 8/10 – There is an artful sense of endeavor here, and an exploratory confidence that speaks to many years playing in bands both East and West that came before this studio outing. Though the album is not overlong, the extended instrumental passages grow a bit less uniformly affecting over time.
Vocal Performance: 7/10 – It seems that Russell-Lowe is well-aware of what is his strongest material, and when he is at his best, he belts out his soul quite viscerally. There are times at which the performances seem somewhat more diffident, though certainly never missing the mark entirely.
Lyrics: 7/10 – Though his best work stands up with almost anything that you will find, Russell-Lowe also includes more diaristic passages that punch a bit lighter. He is an estimable poet, and will only grow into his powers further.
Musicianship: 7/10 – This score could be a bit higher, as Russell-Lowe and his associates are clearly veteran professionals at their craft, but one can sense the guitar creeping ahead of the percussion, at times, for instance. There is room for improvement in the execution of these big ideas.
Production: 8/10 – This album sounds glorious. Russell-Lowe is a highly trained audio engineer, himself, and his site explains that some of this work comes from his own home studio. Between that and the contributions from other associates, there is nothing missing here, and the crescendos are quite as anthemic as intended. However, as mentioned earlier, some of the more protracted instrumental runs might seem a touch redundant, on occasion.
Originality – 7/10 – Russell-Lowe clearly wishes to push far beyond the bounds of the old AM radio format, and by and large, his efforts are a great success. Though this is not uncharted territory, musically (Sturgill Simpson and Neil Young have walked these roads), this is also not an album that could have been made by just anyone, as the poetry comes from a very personal space, and aims to challenge the listener, not to occupy any anodyne middle ground.
Final Score: 7.3/10 – An intriguing glimpse into the internal world of an up-and-coming artist who seems to be on the verge of breaking through.
Cover Image by: Brielle Clare Photo