Experimental folk musician Sarah Louise Henson made her name as both a composer and a skilled 12-string acoustic guitarist with a distinctive style that made her music and the instrument seem uniquely interdependent. That approach, which concentrated on intricate detail, including things like deconstructed overtones, song-specific tunings, and small patterns rather than the big, ringing sound associated with the 12-string, was established on two instrumental albums and 2018's Deeper Woods, her singing/songwriting and Thrill Jockey debut. A year later, the follow-up, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars, breaks new ground for Henson, building tracks from improvisation on an electric guitar with standard tuning, both firsts for her. She also ventured into the realm of synthesized sound by layering samples and digitally manipulated loops, nearly all of which originated from the electric guitar (there is one track with synthesizer and one with manipulated 12-string on the record). Working in these parameters, she still draws inspiration from the natural world and retains the warmth, hints of wistful psychedelia, and patient attention to detail that marked her prior work. Before she showcases all of the above on the epic eight-and-a-half-minute title track that closes the album, the brief "Daybreak" evokes its setting with field recordings of birds, a hymn-like vocal melody (from the traditional song "Bright Morning Stars"), and layered, chiming sustained tones. She explores drone more fully on "Rime," a dissonant instrumental that relies on shifting tension and timbres instead of melody or resolution. Elsewhere, the kinetic "Ancient Intelligence" features speeded-up samples (think Kishi Bashi), real-time plucked strings, and fingerpicked passages that are still manipulated and, therefore, vaguely otherworldly but sound organic next to the higher-pitched components. There's not much in the way of lyrics following the opening track, but she highlights her ethereal voice as an instrument on the harmonic study "Late Night Healing Choir." Taken together, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars almost functions as a tone poem and is nearly as beautiful and elegant as its thematic inspirations.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson