by Michael R. Walker
When Ovrld assigned me the new Balmorhea releases, they did so without knowing that I’ve been following the band from its inception nor that I’d even watched Rob Lowe play piano on occasion at an old church I used to crash every now and then when I was still trying to believe in Jesus. It’s because of such a colored past that I’m writing this piece with a great deal of contentment. I love Balmorhea and am actually quite honored to have the space to give them a little credit.
Balmorhea is one of the most quietly evocative groups and have been consistently writing and playing dramatic and beautiful music since their origins in 2006. Needless to say, when the opportunity to review them came up I figured it best to stride in kind and quietly accept and in doing so, with great hope, invite you all into the musical space that Balmorhea has cultivated for me through the last decade.
The band simultaneously released two records last month and for this reason I will be reviewing both respective records individually. We’re going to focus today on the remastered release of their self titled 2007 debut and the review to follow will explore their newest release, Heir. After the immediate impression that both records left on me, I wanted to give each one its own room to grow and have its own set of thoughts.
To preface all remarks to follow, I should note that I first heard Balmorhea when it was released in 2007. It was the one cd that I randomly had in my car that summer when I drove alone from San Marcos, Texas through the painted American West to San Francisco, California (I was a young man not yet privy to the non-existence of the American dream and so I sought employment as a carpenter there). It’s actually odd to review this album after all these years and so many listens later because I hadn’t picked it up in at least a year. It’s like reconnecting with an old friend who’s been traveling off the grid for a long time and when they show up to your house unannounced, you eat, drink, catch up, and dance around whether or not you should sleep with each other.
This album has its own unique musical lexicon and is a massive lesson in restraint. It’s originally a living room recording that two guys birthed a band out of. The record flirts with motifs without tiring them out or leaving any unexplored space in error. Each song has a sort of loose handed execution, but all of them are wildly intentional and distinct. As the song titles suggest, there is an archetypal journey that we are to be moved through. In this surrealist landscape the music says much without a single lyric and the sparseness of the duo’s instrumentation lends itself, surprisingly, to a rich and luscious sound. This remastering is incredibly well executed and brought out beautiful nuances that were understated in the original release.
From the sonic tones in “And I Can Hear The Soft Rustling of My Blood” the mind is taken into the womb – of what we know not. Perhaps it’s introducing us to the birth of our journey. It’s a hushed bed of deep toned sound with simple counter melodies climbing out of it, played on banjo and what sounds like an upright piano. There is delicacy here, marking out places to step in the sand so that a child knows where it’s safe to walk as they follow their parents down to the beach. That deep toned undercarriage recalls the first half of album opener, “Atessa,” but it’s to the advantage of the idea of a sojourner on their way through. We are moved across really subtle dynamics. While the album is sparsely populated for much of its length, it finds deeper and quieter ravines in which to rest throughout the record without losing pace.
The only way to describe “Dream Of Thaw” for me is calling it romantic – two guitars dancing in stereo, both taking turns arpeggiating the supporting chords and carrying forward the songs movement and melody. The entire song sounds as though it could have happened in a foxes sleeping mind. I don’t want to give away the surprise ending, but you should know that the last number on the record, “We Will Rebuild With Smooth Stones,” is the perfect sign-off. It rounds out great crescendos and pensive moments of legato and languid pianissimo. We are left satisfied, but knowing that there is yet more in a future we can’t see.
Each song on album is rich with detail that I don’t have room to dive into fully enough here, but it’s worth experiencing. From the first time I heard this album, I was moved by it. As I entered a somewhat forced relationship with it in the desert, I grew to love it as a trusted friend. Now that I’ve heard its reemergence, I’m nostalgic and a little heartbroken. I missed it. It’s not an album for everyone and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t become your favorite album. But there’s something great about that. Least-Heat-Moon put it best when he wrote on keeping quiet about the four-calendar cafes in the hidden hollers and towns across America. Those diners are meant to be the ephemeral and eternal places of refuge that they are. Keep the fancy restaurants in the city where they belong, for out here we travel and are hungry and are fed in old and quiet ways.
Michael R. Walker hales from the flatlands of a wind-bleached Amarillo, TX. After departing this desolate place, traveling the world, and surviving a bout with amoebic dysentery he matriculated at Texas State University, obtaining approximately 2 degrees – respectively in Archaeological Iconography and Creative Writing. He loves bluegrass, whiskey, and would gladly sacrifice his friendship with you for a desperate love-spiral of pizza consumption. Michael currently works as a freelance web designer, plays guitar for the Austin band Ghostbunny, is a contributing author for Ovrld, and a poet/essayist for Velvet Dust Magazine.