Pearls from the River
t’s a slow burn, the beginning of Pelt’s ninth proper full length album. As you might expect there’s a droning baritone banjo, playing drawn out notes over a deeper, more stable cello. And then there’s the requisite plucked banjo, rambling its way through endless permutations within the simple bedding that the other instruments have provided, until Jack Rose- the guitarist of the group, here on banjo- seemingly gets tired of the nonsense- ends his meandering with a simple sweep of the hand, is silent for a few seconds while his band mates finish their last moments of the first movement and then the band takes off. Galloping in a completely different direction, the band begins an ecstatic jaunt playing faster and faster- a ragged beat keeps time, the banjo adds a melodic flourish outside of its rhythmic base and if you listen closely enough you just might hear the sound of handclaps. Releasing the built-up tension of the previous four minutes that had been fostered through the eerie and wobbly nature of the first movement, the track’s explosion of ecstatic fury comes as a revelation.
On “Pearls from the River,” Rose is on 12 string, while Mike Gangloff takes up the esraj- a traditional Indian instrument that acts something like a combination between a saringda and sitar - to build a haunting and evocative raga. The other piece of the puzzle here, outside of the dueling lead instruments is the bass- played by Patrick Best. Played like Entwhistle, Best gives the piece a solid place from which the group can work from to improvise in and around. And while there are no moments that can be strictly labeled release, that isn’t the point. The rules of the raga- as practiced by Rose here, restrict the melodic possibilities, providing a structure to the improvisations.
As we hear on the third and final track, “Road to Catawba,” there are, at the same time, limitless possibilities and impositions placed on each performer. Rose takes up the six string, while Gangloff moves over to the tambouria for a full exploration of the Lydian mode- the mode you get if you play a scale from the 4th note of a major scale. The result of the two- along with Best’s enveloping bass drones is a mix between “North Fork” and “Pearls.” There is a definite peak in the last half of the composition, building to a climax and then slowly fading away off into the distance. It’s a fitting end to the stirring beginning and running-in-place of the title track.
Overall, Pelt fans should not be surprised by the group’s work here, despite its place in the group’s canon as the first all-acoustic improve release. Taking the familiar elements of Indian raga, Appalachian folk and free improvisation have been the group’s hallmark over its near decade existence. What is surprising in this instance, however, is how mature the group sounds. Pearls from the River succeeds in becoming a tremendous album moreso from the incredible and effortless synthesis of these elements, rather than any sort of perfection of an established form. Instead, they are busy establishing their own new forms. Listen to it now- while the thrill of discovery is still present.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 12-OCTOBER 18, 2003