Greg Davis: Curling Pond Woods

Given the high praise Arbor received upon its release two years ago, it would have been understandable had Greg Davis not deviated from its formula too greatly in devising its follow-up. But surprisingly, Curling Pond Woods is markedly different, as it moves him away from his former guitar-based instrumental style and its attendant Nick Drake influence to an approach that's less straightforward, more expansively orchestrated and compositionally focused, and strongly influenced by Brian Wilson. The difference is boldly announced with the opener “Red Barn Road,” a twenty-six second a cappella overture. That's right, vocals, and not just any vocals but ones clearly referencing those trademark heavenly Beach Boys harmonies. To Davis 's credit, he manages a pretty good imitation of “Our Prayer” and thus clearly signals his allegiance to the Smile and Sunflower eras in particular. Furthermore, that Davis places “Red Barn Road” in advance of “Brocade (Rewoven)” is telling, too, as it suggests the foremost emphasis Davis accords musical concepts with guitar playing a key but secondary consideration. Of course, Davis fans will be familiar already with “Brocade” as it appeared on last year's Carpark comp Wanna Buy A Craprak? and, while it's updated here (or, as its title indicates, ‘rewoven'), the changes are marginal. Notwithstanding the intro to ‘Slightly Asleep' (a guitar-glockenspiel duet that recalls Arbor 's title track), “Brocade (Rewoven)” is the song that most recalls Arbor .

With the other pieces, however, Davis explores more adventurous territories. He fittingly trades his guitar for kalimbas on ‘Improved Dreaming' which finds him transported from the back porch to an African tropical forest full of bird chatter. Such exotica fades halfway through, however, and the spotlight shifts to a graceful coda of mournful clarinets and accordion playing. He later puts his feet up, hoists his guitar, and joins guest Donald Mennerich's saxophones and clarinet in front of a crackling fire on “Centermost.” The dense, spirited arrangement of trombones, pedal steel, shakers, and guitar of “Curling Pond Woods” conjures a vision of Davis and friends caught in communal rapture on the back porch. Meanwhile, the cacophonous dronescape “An Alternate View Of A Thicket” should quell any notions that Curling Pond Woods is too mellow. Admittedly, some caveats arise. Davis 's solo vocalising on the Beach Boys' “At My Window” is too ragged and unpolished and should have been passed on to a guest vocalist who could do the song justice. And the numerous appearances of nature samples (birds, water, etc.) needlessly overstate the tracks' obvious bucolic qualities; the music already conveys them and hardly needs them exaggerated further.

Davis seems to be most enamoured of the Brian Wilson-Van Dyke Parks period as, not only do tracks directly reference the Beach Boys' songs, but their spirit is invoked too. Davis's timeless hymn “Air,” for instance, drinks from the same deep well as the one that produced “Cabinessence.” In fact, “Air” isn't a Brian Wilson composition at all but one by Mike Heron (included on The Incredible String Band's Wee Tam) whose hymnal campfire chant and celestial harps end Curling Pond Woods in lovely manner. It's a strong outing but one that impresses even more for being such an imaginative departure from Arbor .

February 2004