Review: Old Saw – Country Tropics (Lobby Art, Nov 19)

After a thoroughly demoralizing week, this gorgeous debut LP from motley instrumental collective Old Saw came at exactly the right time. Guided by the meditative drifts of composer and sound engineer Henry Birdsey’s steel guitar (both lap and pedal), the sextet also features Ira Dorsett on fiddle, Bob Driftwood on banjo, Rev. Clarence Lewis on pipe organ, Harper Reed on guitars, and Ann Rowlis on bells. I briefly wrote about the elusive category of devotional music in my Dun Sug review a few days ago, and the introductory text to Country Tropics continues the conversation much more eloquently: “However, devotional music is not solely concerned with a skyward glance—what does it look like to raise up the rust, look upon fractured branches, gaze at the density of a low fog across a field? Instead of us looking up at the land, what if the land was looking back at us?” In this way, the delicate ambience woven by these skilled musicians is not simply made up of reactions to or harmonies with each other, but also individually and wholly comprises responses to the beauty of the world around them.

The liner notes again hit the nail on the head when they describe how “the crew stretches and bends chords to their resting place”; though these four loosely structured pieces ascend to great (yet still humble) heights with elegiac laments, subdued textural swells, and pillowy climaxes like the pale winter sun emerging from the grayness of the sky, they are all also profoundly anchored odes to the earth, peaceful appreciations for the rocks and plants and water and soil that will eventually become our resting place. What’s more, it’s as if each track is designed for each performer to shine: “Dead Creek Drawl” trusses triumph with Driftwood’s evocative rolls and thick beams of radiance from Lewis’s organ; “The Mechanical Bull at Our Lady of the Valley” draws primarily from the interplay between Reed’s fingerpicked nylons, Rowlis’s bells, and Birdsey’s seraphic phrasings; “Dirtbikes of Heaven, Grains of the Field” opens the skylight for Dorset’s emotional bow drones to soar through; and “Chewing the Bridle” is a unifying tour-de-force for all six musicians. Music for those who have ever hit a huge jump on their bike and briefly wished to remain suspended in the sky forever, but then immediately after that wanted nothing more than to return their feet to the ground.