NELS ANDREWS – SCRIMSHAW
2012 - Ignatious
Apparently‘Scrimshaw’ is the art of carving whalebone, developed by the old time whalers to help pass the long boring periods when they could be away from home for up to three years at a time. Quite appropriate really because despite the 20th century
instrumentation the album has that old folksy feel that is difficult to tie down or define, made more haunting by the inclusion of Rich Ninmans sad mournful steel guitar that at times seems to almost evoke a whale call.
This is the third album release by Nels Andrews with the previous two, whilst being very good, not quite up to the standard of this darkly atmospheric offering. He always strikes me as being more of a folksinger than alt. country, albeit one who likes to explore mellow yet powerful soundscapes rather than sticking to all acoustic instrumentation. The generally sparse atmosphere with it’s air of calm and reflection and subtle small changes has similarities to a band such as Blue Nile; thematically and vocally not very close, but more so in terms of tempo and sparseness. It helps that his vocals are warm and expressive, even at times having an intimate feel, almost as if he is opening his heart up to the listener.
All of the songs are written by Nels, although the lyrics to Three Hermits are taken from W.B.Yeats with Andrews supplying the music that perfectly complements the words. There is always a feeling of reflection, regardless of how you interpret these lyrics, many of which could have the music removed and still be excellent poetry, such is the quality of his writing. Many slow moody albums that never speed up can be hard work but not so ‘Scrimshaw.’ I suspect that the more it gets played the more it will engender that feeling in the listener that, in much the same way as Blue Nile, this is something quite extraordinary, if difficult to tie down and pin a label on.
To give some idea of the way his mind works, Small Victories seems to be a tribute to that incredible Carnegie Hall domiciled centenarian photographer, Editta Sherman. Not a link you would usually expect to make to someone who to all intents and purposes is an alt. country singer songwriter, but in the case of Nels lyrics you get very little of what you expect, ensuring more power and unpredictability in his work. The haunting accompaniment is courtesy of the steel guitar, quite possibly what gives his work the country link, but he and producer Todd Sickafoose don’t seem to be
guided by any generic identity, instead preferring to match the instrumentation to what they feel the songs require. The album opener is Tridents, with it’s gorgeous haunting steel guitar and sparse chiming electric guitar on a slow moody song, thus setting the scene for what is to follow, in this case, Starboard an unusual song that again opens with steel guitar but then is gradually joined by piano. Three Hermits, with the lovely chiming banjo tones, changes the albums atmosphere and gives this song a slightly sinister feel with the lyrics of W.B.Yeats and perfectly suited music courtesy
of Nels. Lost Year (Off Track Betting) is quite an epic song with it’s variety of sounds, although always relatively sparse and atmospheric with banjo plinking away in the background and mournful violins. And so the album goes on, always knowing that the songs are not going to get above mid tempo, but also knowing that what comes next will be entirely different, if always sparse thematically and instrumentally.
This is an album full of poetic lyricism and thinly veiled metaphor that repays repeated listening sessions. There is always something going on in these excellent folksy songs that probably fit just as easily under the country umbrella. It’s a quality album by a musician who exhibits some excellent if subtle originality and long may he continue to do so.