Album review: ‘Instrumental Conversations’ by Dave Desmelik

It takes intention to listen to instrumental music. Without rhymes and narratives to direct the imagination, the mind is left to wander among sounds and textures. Singer-songwriter Dave Desmelik understands this and, of his latest release, Instrumental Conversations, he writes, “This heartfelt and sincere recording is a collection of 16 songs intended to be listened to with an attentive or distant ear.”

There’s a kind of magic to embracing the inherent value and function of the “distant ear” — that part of the human brain that is listening in the background and processing information to which the consciousness is oblivious. Still, a relationship is happening between listener and song, perhaps in the same way the sleeping mind processes information through dreams that the waking mind rarely recalls.

Desmelik nods to this phenomenon with the track “Elevator Music,” the title referencing the sappy backdrop of waiting rooms and hotel lobbies. But Desmelik’s take is far from forgettable. It leads with chunky piano chords before the introduction of fuzzy electric guitars that rise and fall over tasteful percussion. The conversation between sober keys and the raw keen of strings feels of two minds sharing a single thought.

Lead track “Contact” sets the tone with fingerstyle guitar and delicate fiddle (Madeline Dierauf). It’s an uplifting melody but also poignant, akin to a lilting Celtic tune. This balance of emotion and warmth runs throughout the collection, offering the listener opportunities to tap into feeling or to simply be at ease.

There’s an interesting buzzing drone — cicadalike — in the opening bars of “Alone Together” that captures a particular summer evening melancholy. Such wistfulness, woven through expansive soundscapes, threads Instrumental Conversations. “Autumn Frost” is pensive, its chill underscored by emotive flute (Kate Kinney Barber); “Shadow Walker” is haunted by long bow strokes and dissonant strains of the fiddle interlaced with the guitar’s deeper voice. In fact, Desmelik has parlayed his years as a songwriter into sussing language from the nonverbal compositions.

There are other sonic motifs, too: the buoyant “Lips,” further elevated by a plucky mandolin part (Josh Carter); the rollicking, sun-drenched “Downtown Greer;” the meandering “Iron Fish” (launched by a child’s voice shouting the title) that burbles, streamlike, through audible scenes and rhythms into a few choice (and deeply felt) minor notes. Field recordings from nature (water, wind) add to the tapestry.

“The Next 255 Seconds” is a bit of a departure in that it’s heavy. At the 2:41 minute mark, a fuzzy electric guitar revs and growls over the lithe, finger-plucked melody. It’s unexpected, but it adds ballast to the album. It pulls the track back into sharp focus, speaks directly to the attentive ear. Demands notice, shows its hand, shows its bruises from life’s pummel — then returns to the mellow grace Desmelik has so deftly established.

Instrumental Conversations wraps with a pair of short songs: “Catch and Release” and “The Rise and Fall of Water.” Perhaps the ordering of the tracks wasn’t meant to suggest a connection, but everything about Desmelik’s album feels intentional. Here, the two songs are clearly separate entities: The former contains a summer afternoon glow within its warm notes and brushed percussion; the latter a sweetly halting waltz. But together they serve as bookends to “Contact” and reprise the album’s restful energy. The attentive and distant ear both find solace, find comfort, find delight.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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