Chuck Johnson

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Balsams Review

by Thom Jurek

Anyone who has paid any attention to guitarist/composer Chuck Johnson knows that he is a musical polymath. His debut offering was 2013's widely celebrated Crows in the Basilica, quickly followed by 2015's Blood Moon Boulder. Both records were rooted in the American primitive, Takoma Records school of six- and 12-string aesthetics. In the interim, he was compiling an extensive résumé of soundtrack work which included the score for the PBS series A Chef's Life and the HBO documentary Private Violence. What ties these things together is that Johnson is a musical storyteller. His 2016 outing, Velvet Arc, focused on two very different sides of his electric guitar playing and told two different kinds of stories: solo- and band-based. Balsams is, in some senses, the finest example of his yarn spinning. Mostly using the pedal steel guitar and the recording studio as instruments, he manages to assemble a labyrinthine journey through light, twilight, darkness, and emotional states of being to offer musical images of the physical world. Balsams is comprised of six medium-to-long tracks, each unfolding as a chapter in a meandering walk through space, texture, ambience, and silence itself. Johnson multitracks, from open drones to reverbed leftovers to charted song mapping as he follows his instrument's own resonances. The obvious touchstone for what he's pursuing here appears to be Harold Budd, whose investigations of the piano's tonal abilities that echo on themselves as they enter silence encounter other textural elements, inevitably leading to new discoveries. "Calamus" opens with what sounds like a church organ breathing, but the layers of pedal steel form chord voicings; they open tones for single-note basslines and harmonics to fill in the blanks, creating a feeling akin to the emerging dawn. "Riga Black" is at once tender and lonesome. Sweet, gently whispered high strings meet the pedals extending their voices as they encounter and move through mid-register counter lines and moaned swoops crying in the distance, though they never shout. Restraint is everything in Johnson's sound world. The music is allowed to portray -- seemingly on its own terms -- what has been lost, yet offers an unresolved hint of a silver lining on the horizon. In "Eye on the Sparrow," the sacred is evoked through hushed and reverential tones contrasted with wordless sounds of a choir far back in the mix. Closer "Balm of Gilead" is pure, blissed-out formlessness as drones and long single lines dialogue in wistful, unhurried utterances. If Brian Eno's Apollo (that featured Daniel Lanois on steel guitar) was more concerned with exploring what lies hidden in the known rather than what could only be imagined of the [then] unknown), it might have sounded something like this. For its obvious beauty, Balsams is remarkably unself-conscious; Johnson has created a work in music that seems to comes from within the hearts of things seen and unseen, rather than attempt to explore or theorize about them from the outside.

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