Josh Blake releases a new acoustic album

FRONT BURNER: After one recording project was sidelined, musician and engineer Josh Blake returned to a collection of acoustic songs. The end result — ‘Nothing’s in the Way’ — is a groovy, danceable, still slightly funky artistic statement accentuated by earworm choruses and guest artists. Photo by Sandlin Gaither

Visit Josh Blake’s website, and you’ll find a large photo of him sitting in a recording studio, surrounded by knobs, dials and cords that extend from one machine to another like strange robotic octopuses. It’s a stark contrast to the typical “acoustic guitarist in a field” one might find on many singer-songwriters’ homepages.

But then, Blake is not most singer-songwriters.

For more than a decade, he has divided his time between performing in various funk outfits (most notably Josh Blake’s Organ Trio) and creating local media outfit iamavl. He’s also an engineer and producer at Echo Mountain Recording, where he’s worked on projects by Leftover Salmon, Jon Stickley Trio and countless others.

But, in his downtime, Blake has been messing around on acoustic guitar, writing new songs that don’t fit neatly into the funk format or the more rock ‘n’ roll format he’s chosen for previous solo albums. He’s finally recorded those songs and is releasing his first acoustic singer-songwriter album, Nothing’s in the Way. He’ll celebrate with a release party at Ambrose West on Thursday, May 16.

“I had made demos for almost this whole record,” he says. “And then, listening back to myself singing and [playing] acoustic guitar, I was getting a little bit weirded out by it. I work in a studio, so I work with so many incredible vocalists and singer-songwriter types that I was putting myself [against them] and being like … ‘This song’s cool, but maybe someone else should sing it.’ I started to get hypercritical of it. I got cold feet and shelved it all.”

So, to cleanse his creative palate, Blake moved on to another project, something on the “opposite side of the musical spectrum,” based on the story of a robot from a distant planet. Likening that project to something by Gorillaz, Blake filled the album with electronic beats, plenty of rapping and other vocals, and narration by Colonel Bruce Hampton. He was thrilled with the result and angled the project for release. Then Hampton passed away, leaving the project tied up with his estate. As Blake set into negotiating for its release, he says he felt “energetically stuck” and decided to revisit the shelved acoustic recordings.

He was in California at the time and sat down with his guitar one night to play through the old songs. It occurred to him the best way to put this material out would be to make an all-acoustic album. To solidify the idea, he booked a date at UpCountry Brewing in West Asheville. The vibe from the band and the audience that night felt good enough that he decided to jump into the project with both feet.

The result features the inimitable talents of Marcus King, Billy Cardine, Aaron “Woody” Wood, Matt Williams and Marisa Blake. It’s a groovy, danceable, still slightly funky artistic statement that will endear new and old fans alike to Blake’s tasty harmonies and earworm choruses.

The hook on “Here Comes the Fool Again,” with its fluttering mandolin and vaguely reggae beat, is impossible to walk away from. “Prohibition Song” is likely to be a crowd pleaser, with its catchy “Let’s go get high / let’s go get lit” chorus. “Undertow” is another delight, which feels like floating on light waves over a vibey array of acoustic instrumentation.

The title track, which opens the record, begins with a dreamy fiddle and rootsy banjo feel and Blake singing, “I know sometimes it seems that there’s a mountain, a mountain that you’re moving / it’s never too late to make a change and wake up to a world, a world that’s improving.” As the disc unfolds, we hear more banjo and fiddle, various guitar, pedal steel, more of that mandolin and plenty of Grateful Dead-esque harmonies.

Indeed, Blake notes that his original idea for the album’s release show was one set where the band played the entire album, followed by a set of The Grateful Dead’s Reckoning album from start to finish. When rehearsals began, however, he decided to postpone the Dead tribute to a later date and expects to schedule that show for the fall.

“I’ve never been like, ‘This is my genre, this is my thing,’” Blake explains. “My discography has such random stuff on it. I’ll do a rap tune, a rock tune, a bluegrass tune. … I’ve never wanted to be stifled creatively by settling into a genre. I think putting out this record is part of me being confident, feeling I can do different things. I can push different things out publicly and let the music speak for itself.”

WHAT: Josh Blake’s Acoustic Band album release show
WHERE: Ambrose West, 312 Haywood Road, ambrosewest.com
WHEN: Thursday, May 16, 8 p.m.  $12 advance/$15 day of show

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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: The Life and Times of Zilphia Horton,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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