There’s something deeply satisfying about hearing two guitarists playing together with thought and care. Not dueling guitarists or some kind of Malmsteenian speed test, but players who recognize the graceful beauty of interweaving their notes. For the better part of the last 20 years the gold standard of this balance might have been Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper of The Church. Listen to the confident nuance of their work together on “Another Earth” from 1998’s Hologram of Baal, for example, or anything from 2009’s stellar Untitled #23. That’s the result of years of craft and a spirit of collaboration that requires more effort than the simple one-upmanship of back-and-forth soloing.
“Song Sung From Far,” the opening track of the new Grand Lake Islands album Song From Far, establishes this tone. Described as a collective rather than a band, it’s the brainchild of singer/songwriter Erik Emanuelson. The musicians he’s assembled—guitarists Shelby Farrar and Evan Krogh, bassist Kyle Hartelt, and drummer Bob Reynolds—haven’t played together for years but sound as if they have. Whether comparing the straightforward gallop of “Monterey,” the restraint of “Diamond Eyes,” or the slow-burn transformation of “Silver Moon,” this music sounds like earned mutual understanding.
Emanuelson’s expressive, understated tenor is sometimes compared to Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan but that’s nonsense; for all his songwriting prowess Dylan’s voice was never this pleasant to listen to. A closer comparison might be made to Neil Young at his most melodic and least nasal. Based on these 10 songs you wouldn’t claim Emanuelson’s range as a vocalist is extraordinary but he never goes wrong: Tracks like “Canopy” and “White To Grey” require more pathos while others, such as “Come To Call,” benefit from a sense of restraint. This isn’t one-size-fits-all singing, a common complaint about some modern folk acts.
Despite the ennui from which it seems to have sprung Song From Far is an album of surpassing beauty. It’s emotional, melancholic, maybe even sad, but never maudlin. The playing is skilled, the production crystalline and unfussy. Nominally this would be characterized as folk but that shouldn’t scare anyone off. It’s an excellent, albeit quiet, rock album.
– Eric Evans
Grand Lake Islands celebrate the release of Song From Far live February 15 at Mississippi Studios