Songs of Water‘s new album, The Sea Has Spoken opens with a breathless peal of hammered dulcimer that is quickly integrated — though never really absorbed — into the orchestration of the full band. It ebbs and flows. The whole record ebbs and flows with graceful gestures, sweeping strokes of light and dark, complex layering and effortless playing.
The Greensboro-based band — which performs at The White Horse this Saturday (May 1) — recorded Spoken at (among other locales) Skaggs Place Studios in Nashville. The studio is owned by Grammy-winning country musician Ricky Skaggs, who appears on Spoken, along with his daughter and son, Molly and Luke.
Luke is actually a member of Songs of Water and, according to the band’s MySpace page, plays “mandolin, sitar, violin, percussion, other funky stringed things.” But that’s pretty much run of the mill for this group, as each member — (Stephen Roach, Jason Windsor, Marta Richardson, Greg Willette, Michael Pritchard and Sarah Stephens) play multiple instruments, from dulcimer, baritone guitar and cello to shruti box and (tongue-in-cheek) hacky sack.
“Sycamore” is one of few tracks with vocals. Roach (who wrote it and sings on it) has a soft and easy tenor; Molly Skaggs proffers backing vocals so clarion and ethereal that it’s only the metallic jingling of bells and earthy thump of bass drum that tether the otherwise soaring melody. Marta Richardson’s electric violin aerials really propels the piece into the ethers.
As if aware of the floaty tendencies, the band anchors the listener with a very crisp, percussive next track. “The Great Russian Catastrophe” suggests military tactics and muscular, acrobatic dances. That songs is followed by the taught, heavy drumming of “Through the Dead Wood.”
“Window Seat” also has a wicked percussion solo between Roach on hand drums and Pritchard on kit, but before the listener can decide that this is a world music album with a penchant for doumbek (the world music influence comes from band leader Roach); the refined classical influences pull the ear in another direction. Final track “Willow” pairs a rather minimalist tenor banjo part with a lush string arrangement; “Luminitsa” reaches even farther into far-flung influences, layering banjo and mandolin with Latin beats and toothsome Spanish-style guitar.
At times the wild juxtapositions of instruments challenge the ear, but on the whole the album is so well constructed, so daring and yet —simultaneously — so careful that instead of descending into auditory chaos each track remains fresh and uncluttered.
It’s hard to name the audience for Spoken, though one would be equally hard-pressed to rule out any group of listeners. The lack of lyrics hardly detracts from the music and the collection as a whole is so engaging that, surely, to see the musicians in action would only add to the experience. Find out for yourself at The White Horse this Saturday. 8 p.m., $8.