London – The sense that you are uncovering something precious hits you just a verse or so into “Light Blue”, the opening round of ten songs that make up Rosewood Almanac, the new album by California-born New Yorker Will Stratton. The record is Stratton’s first for Bella Union and, notably following a career composed of home recordings, self-releases and works for small Indie labels you suspect he has found a spiritual home. The delicacy yet underlying strength of these reflective songs has found its complementary housing; delve into this Almanac and you’ll discover an uncommon unification of sound and word, fittingly named after the songsmith’s treasured rosewood guitar. The record has a similar soft burr to it yet carries weight too.
“Light Blue” begins with bird song behind softly picked guitar before this deceptively gentle mood is transformed by shards of electric guitar, bass and skittish drums redolent of classic English folk-rock. This metamorphosis is signalled by a pivotal line – “I need to know / Why it kills the young and it melts the snow” – rather like the inciting incident in a screenplay. Throughout the album, Stratton’s lyricism carefully straddles both the personal and the universal. After the oblique opener, the string embellished “Thick Skin” considers how problems follow you around and, as you age with experience, heralds a time to look outwards rather than soul search.
“Manzanita” is essentially a song about Stratton’s brother but broadens to applaud the beauty of growing and adapting with age, just as the small tree in the title takes root and blossoms. His words simply spill out over a lilting piano and guitar driven melody as the singer celebrates “I love the way that we grow old.” Will Stratton plays much of the instrumentation on the record and here is brilliantly augmented by Gabriel Birnbaum’s expressive saxophone, Sandy Gordon’s bright percussion and Maia Friedman’s warm backing vocal.
Much as songs like “Light Blue” and “Manzanita” find their true expression in artful arrangements around thoughtful sentiments, there are sparser compositions on the record, notably the opus to the marginalised, “Vanishing Class”, where sonorous piano is tempered by swirls of strings, and the songs that complete the album, “This Is What We Do” and “Ribbons”. The final two reference the artiste’s treatment for cancer, the success of which beams an optimism across much of the rest of the record while there is an underlying gratitude expressed for the understanding gained through painful experience.
Will Stratton has cited a bunch of influences on his music – notably Nick Drake, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny – but there is equally a measure of the classic troubadour of the Laurel Canyon era about him. With no little skill, he has managed to blend these into a truly holistic song collection, marked by his soft, elegiac voice working in complete harmony with his musical interpretations. The net effect could be summed up by one of the many outstanding songs on the record, “Some Ride” which offers a simple but telling metaphor for life: “All I need is a reason to ride, and I’ll ride all right.”
Rosewood Almanac is out now and available to buy on iTunes. Will Stratton is currently on tour in the UK. Details are on the his Facebook page.
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