Somewhere on this blog long ago, I mentioned that my favorite music sounded something like a drunken pirate falling down some stairs. Maybe I'm aging (this is regrettably true for most of us), or maybe our current climate has changed things (it has). But these days, I might say that my favorite kind of music sounds more like a drunken pirate sitting on a ship's bow, contemplating his mortality.
I don't know that John Calvin Abney has ever been accused of making a racket. As a producer, as a musician, and as a writer, he has cut a wide artistic swath, but there's always been an element of restraint to his solo projects. Here at R&B HQ, we began paying attention to Abney in January of 2015, with the release of his Better Luck collection. His next full length, 2016's excellent Far Cries and Close Calls was likely the closest he's come to generating a full-band noise, even as Coyote and 2019's Safe Passage began to channel that energy in a more reflective direction. His fifth record, Familiar Ground (Black Mesa, Nov 20), brings that process of immersion to its full fruition on his quietest album to date.
I choose the word immersion deliberately. Abney's new songs are a presence as opposed to an absence, an advance and not a retreat. Arrangements are intricate, each piece thoughtfully constructed and presented as a finished work, as opposed to coming across as spare and unadorned. "Shine Like a Friend" blankets acoustic guitar atop warm cello and percussion, with bright synths and Abney's layered delivery. The lyrics speak of mortality and the passing of time, not as a distraction or a preoccupation but rather as an accepted precondition of life: We're stuck in between / Coming and going / Forever taking leave, saying goodbye. That same spirit shines through "Evening Tide" as well, a beautiful tune that adds keys and backing vocals. Those lyrics aren't obtuse, but they leave enough mystery in their wake that listeners may see themselves in the reflection: Dress me in sky blue / Drape me in garden rose / Hold onto the wonder / Find what you want to let go.
As with previous projects, Abney partners on Familiar Ground with longtime friend and co-conspirator John Moreland. Abney would lay down guitar, piano and vocal tracks, and share them with Moreland who would add bass, drums and more vocal. Sessions were polished off with contributions from Don Eanes on keys and Whit Wright on pedal steel. That steel is most prominent in "When This Blows Over", adding texture and tone to the piece, alongside lyrics that address our present circumstance: I've been making lists / Of the missing and the missed / We can summer together / If we can winter this. While the players are few, there is a diverse and engaging range of sounds represented. "Signs of Weather" is awash in atmosphere that borders on psychedelic. Like Jeff Tweedy, John Calvin Abney explores these textures without abandoning the intimacy that pervades his music.
On his fifth full-length record, the Tulsa-based writer bucks the prevailing sentiment that it takes more work to make noise than it does to exercise restraint. Familiar Ground is seemingly a product of its time, a collection that speaks to isolation and intimacy, to stasis and to travel, time and timelessness. Throughout, Abney weaves a quiet spell that never becomes lazy or droning. His music has as much in common with pop sensibility as indie folk or the roots world in which he spends so much of his time. With its fingerpicked acoustic juxtaposed with a subtle cloud of studio melancholy, the title track recalls later period Elliott Smith. The CD closes with "Tokyo City Rain", what seems like a dreambound account of a fleeting trip abroad. The weight of the world, Abney sings, is not yours to hold / Your shoulders are heavy / And I don't know / Lost in translation. While John Calvin Abney has proven that's he's capable of creating a louder noise, perhaps it's this kind of tranquil sigh that speaks to us most directly in the present moment.