Elkhorn: The Black River
Debacle Records

It's not uncommon for a solo release by a twelve-string acoustic fingerpicker or electric guitarist to show up at textura's door; it's far less common for one to appear featuring the two combined. But that's exactly what's happening on The Black River, the debut album from Jesse Sheppard (twelve-string acoustic) and Drew Gardner (electric guitar) under the Elkhorn name (the two also issued a self-titled tape in mid-2016 on Brooklyn's Beyond Beyond is Beyond). On the six-song set (a digital bonus, “Electric Fluid Magnified,” makes it seven), the NYC/Philadelphia duo's interplay feels so natural, one can't help but wonder why the acoustic-electric concept isn't more familiar.

Track titles such as “The Black River” and “Sugar Hill Raga” hint at what to expect: bluesy, neo-psychedelic electric shadings blended with Takoma-styled fingerpicking emblematic of the American primitive movement—a Robbie Basho-meets-Grateful Dead-and-Sonny Sharrock kind of hybrid with occasional dashes of krautrock and experimentalism mixed in for extra seasoning. Though drums and bass are absent, the tunes rock perfectly well when the guitarists are perfectly capable of kicking up dust on their lonesome.

Ideas pour forth at a rapid rate, with each happily ceding the spotlight to the other for extended solo turns. Some degree of earthy distortion bleeds from Gardner's scrabbly playing but not so much that the result is excessively raw; Sheppard's strums and picking resonate with the fresh air of a rejuvenating foray into the countryside. The two nudge things in an Easterly direction on “Sugar Hill Raga,” Gardner's wild wah-wah dramatically contrasting with the clean lines plucked by his partner, whereas “Due West” sees the electric six-stringer waxing slow'n'ecstatic with Sheppard galloping helter-skelter behind him like some unstoppable train. The duo plunges deeply into the Southern swamp for the jazz-blues meditation “Spiritual,” seven minutes of heartfelt expression that's as much John Coltrane as gospel, before exiting the thirty-nine-minute release on an affectingly plaintive note with “Depraved Heart,” Gardner shredding and wailing like he was born to it. When the record's done, one again puzzles over why electric-acoustic recordings aren't more plentiful when the idea pays such rewarding dividends as it does here.

April 2017