Words by Grey Malkin
NYC/Philadelphia based Elkhorn – Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner – are becoming increasingly renowned for their cosmic and widescreen, yet often intimate, guitar symphonies, with their melding of Jack Rose/Robbie Basho style acoustic work with sacred Popol Vuh atmospheres. Previous albums have offered beautiful and sonically adventurous improvisations recorded whilst being holed up during a snowstorm (The Storm Sessions), innovative psych folk (Sun Cycle/Elk Jam) and the spellbinding and intricate fingerpicking of their debut Beyond Beyond is Beyond. Compulsively inventive and with a strong drive to push their music into new landscapes, they continue their incredible run of releases with the propulsive Distances, recorded during summer 2019 and now emerging blinking into the post-lockdown daylight. As Shepherd notes, this is an underlying theme of the record; ‘everything in its own time’.
The first aspect of Distances that quickly impacts is that there are two serving drummers accompanying Sheppard and Gardner this time around. Both Ian McColm and Nate Scheible’s presence help transform this particular incarnation of Elkhorn into, at times, a veritable psych rock behemoth and at others, eyes on the horizon custodians of Floydian space jams that truly exist in their own, richly detailed universe. To illustrate, opener ‘Train’ explodes into being following a pensive, scene setting build-up of finger picking, cosmiche electric guitars runs and an apocalyptic acoustic refrain that underscores the track as the drums propel and then solidify the increasingly fiery and fuelled guitar explorations. As an opening salvo, it is hard to beat and ably sets out Elkhorn’s stall for what follows. ‘Wilderness’, by turn, is a gorgeous and triumphant slice of baroque folk, with a shifting undercurrent of molten guitar and spiralling acoustic arpeggios beneath a sympathetic and grounding rhythm section. On previous Elkhorn recordings it felt as though Sheppard and Gardener had some kind of psychic link, such was the intuition at work in the interplay between the two. On ‘Distances’ all the musicians seem to have tapped into this, as the drums play around the guitars, follow them and frame them, but never overwhelm or pin them down too tightly; everything glides and flows, and it is a joy to hear. If Arthur Lee was still with us, he would want Elkhorn for his backing band.
‘1919’ is next, a tension wire acoustic refrain building and layering with added electrified, expressionistic lead guitar forays that are at times steeped in a late-night melancholy and wistfulness, at others cinematic and charged with atmosphere. Elkhorn’s ability to shift from a mantric and locked groove or melody to something infinitely more freeform and looser, and then back again is spellbinding. The track morphs as it journeys onwards, picking up after a thrilling drum breakdown to ascend once again in a cascade of sunlit harmonies and ecstatic soloing, the light shining through after the storm. The finale too, a rolling and majestic wave of guitar buzz and finely wrought acoustic picking, is jaw dropping. Finally, the epic title track fills a side of vinyl on its own, and begins by masterfully setting mood and anticipation via drum rolls and inventive guitar expositions, all framed by an increasingly urgent acoustic backing. And then, it just flows, river like, into new shapes, new spaces and sounds; sometimes back into the quiet, reflective and golden sun strewn shallows, at others into an elevated and more forceful torrent with genuine power and grace. There is a real beauty to these songs, they glisten and hold melody throughout, even when on their more exploratory travels.
Distances, then, is another essential Elkhorn album; it is tempting to describe it as Elkhorn ‘max’ due to the addition of drums which pitch and propel the tracks to different, new and unexpected territory. However, and crucially, it is the core duo of Sheppard and Gardner and their intuitive interplay that continues to exemplify the human, beating heart at the centre of their music. Often earthy and grounded, sometimes stratospheric and galaxy bound, Elkhorn are pursuing their own dedicated pathway, one that is beautifully unpredictable and constantly engaging. Join them on their journey.
Distances is available from the 16th of September on vinyl and download from Feeding Tube Records.
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