The hammered dulcimer is a pretty instrument. Its notes sparkle. Its sounds is harplike, but crisp and jaunty — and local musician Joshua Messick is well-versed in finessing all of those attributes. His latest album, Woodland Dance, is 14 tracks of dulcimer-led instrumental music, ranging in mood from poignant to exuberant, all underscored by a peaceful, meditative, at-one-with-nature aura of calm.
Lead track “Blue Ridge Sunrise” is briskly awake and composed in ascending and descending scales that burble and prance. It leads into the more pensive “Renaissance.” That song, too, is lithe and bright, but minor chords, lush strings and washes of soft percussion lend ballast to the diaphanous quality. There’s a hint of Middle Eastern melody in moments, and the sense of a mist that infuses the song, vaporous and elusive.
The title track is especially mystical, its Renaissance drama carried through the dulcimer’s staccato notes. Hoofbeats canter down leaf-strewn paths — perhaps in chase, perhaps on the way to a daring tryst. The eerie strings parts (sometimes menacingly low, sometimes atonal) darken the score while thrumming percussion pushes the elevated pulse of the piece.
“Mountain Laurel,” though named for the dense thickets of twisting shrubbery found in the area mountains, is airy and open. A smattering of hand drums and the cool, clear notes of the dulcimer paint a picture of the laurel’s lacy blossoms that scatter steep banks and drift dreamily along mountain streams.
“Ancient Roots” is a stand-out track, diverging from the woodland theme for a journey through eastern-inspired sounds and rhythms. While the track doesn’t seem to be drawing from one particular influence, it taps and synthesizes many, from syncopated beats and repeated, locked-in rhythmic patterns, to shimmery flashes of cymbal and fluttery ascending scales played by the strings and dulcimer. There’s so much going on, with layers of texture and melody building and morphing, yet each element remains clear and the revisited rhythmic pattern lends a thread of continuity.
The song selections include a few covers — a delicate and wistful “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Louis Armstrong’s iconic “What A Wonderful World” (here it’s remade as something dreamier, more ethereal) and Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major.
The delicate, poignant “Streamside Lullaby” follows the more dynamic “Acoustic Storm.” The back-to-back placement of those two tracks showcases Messick’s range. And while the first of the two might be the more thrilling, the quiet and reflective “Streamside Lullaby” (which, in moments, recalls Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”) takes the listener deeper into an emotive and nuanced inner sanctum.
The final song on the album, “Coming Home,” is autumnal and haunting. Smoke wafts through sweeping strings and pulsating dulcimer. High notes ache and the melody touches a pang of nostalgia. This song is right at home with the album’s earlier Arthurian fantasy. But, like those tracks, this one feels as much of the modern world (albeit in soft-focus) as it does an historic adventure soundtrack.
Messick plays an album release party for Woodland Dance at White Horse Black Mountain on Friday, Sept. 9, at 8 p.m. $18 advance/$20 at the door.