Sarah Louise - Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Sarah Louise - Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars

by Howard Scott Rating:9 Release Date:2019-01-25
Sarah Louise - Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars
Sarah Louise - Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sarah Louise has accomplished much in her short recording career, but perhaps her most impressive achievement has been to keep her fans guessing as to what is coming next. She began in 2015 as a 12 string acoustic guitar instrumentalist with “Field Guide” which highlighted the fact that the lady can play the guitar better than most, and string together melodious Appalachian-style folk while doing it. Her next recording was “House and Land”, which was a compilation of tunes done as a duo with Sally Anne Morgan. Both women used their strong vocal capabilities and plucking skills to create more basic minimalist folk without any assistance from electrified instruments. 

“Deeper Woods”, released in May of 2018, saw Sarah Louise bring in other players and instruments to enrich the sound, while her vocals gave listeners a taste of a strong, solo falsetto voice mixed with thoughtful and intelligent lyrics.

Sarah Louise’s work has always been about bringing the sounds and feels of the natural world to recorded  music, and her newest offering, “Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars” continues the pattern, but in a way few probably saw coming. On this disc, her second for Thrill Jockey records, Sarah Louise has taken the most basic of basic things, the natural world surrounding her Asheville, North Carolina home, and melded it with the most modern and unnatural sounds available in a 21st century recording studio. The result of this seemingly oil and water recipe is an eight tune record that isn’t really electronica, isn’t really New Age, and certainly isn’t folk. What the recording is is a reinvention of how to use synths, digital manipulation and other available tools to create  music that brings inner visions of flittering flights of birds, scurrying insects, and rural landscapes to life to create a sometimes soothing, sometimes pensive but always entertaining collection of sounds. Howard

For the most part, this is accomplished without a vocal track. The opener, entitled “Daybreak”, uses a tsunami of sound with a choral and multi-tracked vocal to introduce the coming attractions. It is a short but sweet 1:44 minutes of beauty, and the only real lyrical tune on the record. 

The album’s first single, “Rime” gives listeners an immediate serving of just what can be accomplished with a 12 string guitar in a modern studio. It doesn’t really sound like a stringed instrument is creating the sounds being absorbed, as a deep droning, organ-like background is added to high pitched pulses and electronic bursts to set up one of the more unsettling songs offered. It is a marvelous compilation of sound rarely achieved by a single player. 

“R Mountain” is just the opposite. While again we have keyboard-like ingredients as an anchor, the plucking sounds of a guitar are evident, though distorted and manipulated. This warping of the playing gives the tune a slightly Asian feel that isn’t expected from someone rooted in Appalachian folk. 

To demonstrate the envisioned sound of small creatures skittering about, “Ancient Intelligence” opens with a collage of upper register sound played at a manic pace. The mood and timing eventually slows down before it fades away slowly as if the animals have run off into the distance and disappeared from sight. 

“Swarming at the Threshold” dives back into the more unsettling timing, but also casts a spotlight on Sarah Louise’s guitar skill. On this one, you can hear the talent emanating from the fingers of the player. That isn’t to say that the electronic sound bending isn’t obvious, but the overall amalgam has a guitar plucked flavor that others here don’t. 

A one-person choral vocal on “Late Night Healing” gives the song a unique feel. Sarah Louise uses her voice as an added instrument to add a bit of humanity to the aural plethora of vibrations birthed at the consoles. It isn’t so much a lyric, as an otherworldly collection of notes sung with deep emotion to give the tune a soul. This one is one of the strongest here, in my opinion. 

Another background vocal is part of “Chitin Flight”, but it isn’t as dominant as in “Healing”. This one is more about the effects used to again plant the dream of bugs and beasts running amok in the forest firmly between your ears. A sometimes slightly irritating squeaking sound is in the forefront of the first half of the tune and made me wonder if it was used to personify a gnat or mosquito, since swatting it out of existence seemed to me like it might be a good idea. Nature certainly can have its less than idyllic components, so all’s fair here and it doesn’t diminish the song’s earthly beauty. It just caught me slightly off guard in an otherwise skillfully crafted composition. 

The title tune, offered up last on the record, is an eight and a half minute tour-de-force that isn’t so much a song as it is a soundscape. It creates for the listener a sonic landscape of just-before-dawn darkness in a rural setting devoid of street lamps and headlights. Only the rustling of the denizens of the forest under the soon-to-be-extinguished stars comes into mind as this symphony of sound sinks into your head. “Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars” is a perfect closer and the most New Age-like cut here, though it does tend to be a bit more edgy than most examples of that genre. 

This album is a bold step for an artist who has gained much acclaim for her previous, but substantially different body of work, and she is to be applauded for taking the leap. It also brings to mind the question of where Sarah Louise goes from here. Whatever direction that happens to be, her natural talent and unlimited skill set will certainly bring about a quality product based upon an earth-mother mindset that establishes a devoted appreciation for the world that surrounds us all.

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