What Alice Coltrane is to the jazz world, Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble is to folk music.
The Chicagoan group, which features McLaughlin on 12 and 6 string guitars, harmonium and electronics, Joel Styzens on hammered dulcimer, and Jason Toth on upright bass, blend elements of American primitivism with free jazz and modern classical music together into something daringly original and stunningly beautiful.
The album begins with the melancholic “Sunup,” which is rich with wistful fingerstyle guitar, deeply resonating bowed bass notes and bursts of clanging dulcimer. It puts you into a hypnotic, surrealistic state, like you’re falling into a realm of daydreams and foggy recollections. In this way, it sets a mystical and introspective tone that carries throughout the rest of the record.
On some songs, like the breathtaking “Cascade,” the group leans heavily into the crossroads of Appalachian-inspired folk sounds and the avant-garde mentalities of contemporary string composers like Kronos Quartet. Yet, others stray far out, like the largely drone-based “Spiral Spectrum,” or the jangling mysticism of “Unity of Opposites,” or what for me is possibly the album’s pièce de résistance, “Locust.”
“Locust” is a torrent of twisting sound that channels into vastly unexpected directions. The track begins with a soft high whine of the bowed bass nervously fading behind the ethereal rattle of the dulcimer and McLaughlin’s spirited fingerpicking. The tempo then picks up, allowing for the guitarist to really come alive and display his vast talents, as he leads the track into Fahey and Basho raag territories. Occasionally these sprawling passages are punctuated by sequences of Indian-inspired chord changes. The bass, guitar and dulcimer all undulate through these progressions together as a single, multi-tongued voice. If one of Ravi Shankar’s orchestral pieces was adapted through the lens of a mountain string band music, this is how it might sound. The song becomes a raging river of flickering metallic notes and interlacing modal patterns—all spiraling out of control before finally reaching a solid landing, which brings the song to a satisfying close.
Again, if spiritual folk could be a thing (à la spiritual jazz), then Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble’s debut record is definitely it. Fans of Matt LaJoie, Powers/Rolin Duo and Sean Proper will be deeply impressed and obsessed with McLaughlin’s passionate and versatile guitar playing and the previously undiscovered dimensions he can reach with the rest of his band. Grab this album here and don’t look back.