Local guitarist Sarah Louise recently released her latest album through Vin Du Select Qualitite. (It’s VDSQ Solo Acoustic Vol. 12; Vol. 13 is by fellow local artist Tashi Dorji.) The label describes the 11 tracks as “combining an elemental Appalachian spirit with a modern compositional approach.” But that could also sum up a painting style and, in a way, Sarah Louise’s soundscapes are as much color and light play, as much visual aesthetic as aural experience.
“Bright Light” is whiskered and cool, its notes falling in patterns of threes, then fours, then a flurry of flicks and strums that are felt as much as heard. It’s followed by “Silent Snow,” another lithe ariel. Sarah Louise creates a stippling of textures, her 12-string guitar both rhythm and melody. The song builds in intensity and volume (though subtly). Its first moments are almost breathless in a suspended space before ladders of chords, rising and falling, give way to atmospheric shifts.
“Late April,” quick and pulsating, seems culled from a fleet silver stream racing downhill, skipping rocks and pooling briefly in sun-dappled eddies. High notes erupt, clear and ringing, from the tonal and atonal drone. There’s a play between symmetry and asymmetry, nature’s balance and randomization — a stippling of new green leaves, a spattering of acorns or pebbles or clouds across a blue sky.
There’s something folkloric and forbidding in “Evidence of a Bear.” The title reveals the story, and its hard not to think of Peter and the Wolf, in which the instruments of the orchestra create the themes of the various animals. Here, Sarah Lousie’s guitar is not the voice of the bear, it’s the tremble in the undergrowth, the electric charge of the air, the way smaller animals grow quiet and wary, the way fur and claw mingle with mud and root.
Darker, with an ominous urgency, “Hellbender” winds between low chords and shivery high notes. The finger picking flutters with nervous energy and momentary breaks in the song bring relief. But there’s something palpable and, ultimately, cathartic in the insistent melody.
“Floating Rhododendron,” though just as demanding in its picking style, floods the ears with a welcome warmth. The track is a palate cleanser — a sluice of summer rain, a flicker of fireflies as a hot day cools into night. The bending of a note at the end of phrase is a sonic flourish, and the way high notes float over low drone recalls a hammered dulcimer. The song is both archaic — a yellowed photo from a lost era — and something crisp and fresh.
The album finishes with two songs — “Scarab,” whose strange notes trill and morph in space, part fever dream, part haunted mountain trail — and “Rabbit Hole.” The latter, the collection’s second longest track at just over six minutes, starts with tentative strums. A toe dipped into a chilly stream, a plume of breath in a frosty dawn. Finally, at two minutes in, the song is stirred to life in a rumble of strums and plucks. It tumbles, then trickles, a play of textures and tempos that shift over and over, kaleidoscopelike, strange and beautiful.
Sarah Louise performs at The Mothlight on Sunday, June 12, at 9 p.m., as part of the reintroduced Open Letter Music Series. The show includes Josh Berman & Keefe Jackson and Parish, Libramento & Rodriguez.