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Already released in the Netherlands, Scrimshaw has shot straight to the top of the EuroAmericana chart, and here’s why: on the strength of just two studio albums (Sunday Shoes from 2001 and Off-Track Betting from 2008), Nels Andrews has a devoted following who are delighted to find that this new album is his best work yet. Todd Sickafoose was the producer of that second album; returning to work with him again there is a much better marriage this time round between the bruised intimacy of Nels’ solo performance and his producer’s capacity for experimental, atmospheric soundscapes.
It’s a strange thing with record production; when it doesn’t work you can hear the things that jar, that just don’t sit with each other. When it does work, as it does here, it seems a magical organic thing that couldn’t have come out any other way.
So, “Scrimshaw”: this is the art of carving on whalebone, walrus tusks and suchlike, developed by whalers back in the nineteenth century. It might be writing or it might be illustration, but it was an artform that reflected strongly the circumstances in which it was made. At its best it was exquisite miniature art, made in the quiet hours between bouts of desperate excitement, using the modest materials that came to hand. There probably isn’t a better metaphor for what Nels Andrews does with his songwriting, as he distils his observations and experience of New York life into these beautifully worked tales in song. Though there are instruments like banjo, mandolin and pedal steel embellishing these songs, Nels is very much a folk singer, one who deals with empathy and poetry rather than protest. There is a tremendous richness to his writing, each line full of reference and meaning. This can be self-reference such as the descending chords that open Scrimshaw - instantly recognisable to fans of the earlier albums - whilst when he talks about how “you come home ragged, you come home curly”, we are reminded of John Prine’s Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, and we remember that “sometimes you don’t come home at all”. Nels pulls this off with a light touch, so that it feels like the way friends and family talk amongst themselves, conversation that is full of shared experience and understanding.
Musically, this album has great breadth, with Barroom Bards in particular managing to pull together so many strands into something new and magnificent. Nels’ familiar warm delivery, a trilling mandolin, acoustic guitar as per Howe Gelb and electric guitar as per Neil Young on the Dead Man soundtrack all combine with a chorus of Nels’ mates to make a sound that could be a template for a whole new field of music. The sparse arrangement on Houdini comes closest to replicating the wonderful sound of the first album - the electric guitar is quite eerie with restrained anguish - whilst my favourite song at the moment is Wisteria, probably the sweetest song Nels has written. Here he sounds the most like a 60’s folkie that I’ve yet heard him. I can certainly hear something of a cross between Paul Simon and Tom Paxton going on in the tenderness and in the imagery. Nuala Kennedy adds some sweet, woody flute-playing to the arrangement and the song closes with Todd Sickafoose magically conjuring the sound of bees, busy amongst the wisteria blossom. Wonderful stuff. At first pass this is an album that belongs to the late evening hours but Scrimshaw has depths that will take some time to reveal themselves and that will surprise you, an album full of phrases and imagery to enrich your experience of life. The UK release is not due till June but there’s a few songs up on youtube already to whet your appetite.
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