Guitarist and composer William Tyler has been thinking about America for a long time in the aftermath of 2013's loose, rambling, and beautiful The Impossible Truth, which referenced the country's musical traditions and landscapes. Afterwards, he spent almost two years touring solo, driving back and forth across the country. In a short promo trailer for Modern Country he stated that, "The cultural geography of this vanishing America is what I sense as a slow fade on these long road trips….It still lives, even as the highways and the high rises push it to the fringes of the countryside and the static of the airwaves." This album is his "love letter to what we're losing in America. To what we've already lost." He wrote the music in Oxford, Mississippi, recorded it in Eau Claire, Wisconsin with co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook, percussionist Glenn Kotche, and bassist Darin Gray, then finished it at home in Nashville. At the album's heart lies a pervasive sense of loneliness and a longing for a home that exists only in memory. "Highway Anxiety" recalls Bill Frisell's roots music recordings from the '90s, but the expansive sonic palette here, with reverbed electric guitars, droning synth, gospel piano, lap steel, Kotche's rolling snares, etc. are more panoramic and kinetic. "I'm Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me)" is built on a single acoustic country vamp that kaleidoscopically advances, plateaus, retreats, and begins again as each instrument engages and disengages. Blues and folk roots inform the album's two hinge tracks: "Kingdom of Jones" was inspired by the Mississippi county that seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War, while the wistful "Albion Moonlight" is titled after Kenneth Patchen's novel about an individual so unwilling to heed any but his own counsel, it proves his undoing. "Gone Clear" is built from intimate, shifting melodies offered in rounds toward a series of striking interlocking rhythmic patterns that point directly at Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint: Different Trains with Pat Metheny. Kotche's range of percussion instruments (bells, marimbas, low toms, etc.) provide the guideposts for the dynamic changes. Closer "The Great Unwind" commences as a melancholy, nostalgic, country waltz. Its circular theme is articulated by sweetly played melody from reverbed guitar accompanied by bass, drums, and piano. Guitar feedback and noise are stacked on top until it vanishes under their weight. A short silence is interrupted by singing birds who introduce a new harmonic line, one that recalls the iconic vamp from Prince's "When You Were Mine." It too eventually fades, leaving only bird song to close the album. Modern Country is vast in scope and ambition, but tightly written and expertly arranged. The sprawl of motion, texture, and color is reined in by immense, emotive lyricism and dynamic group interplay, making this musical "letter" to his vanishing nation well worth repeated listening.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek