Lately I’ve been listening to and writing about the sound of ambient country music. I guess it’s the state of the world – but quieter, more ruminative and relaxing sounds have become even more important than ever of late.
There are the traditional ambient go-to’s such as Eno, Harold Budd, Jon Hassall, Williams Basinski and Max Richter, but when you want a bit more swing and swoon in your wind-down you’re also well served in the world of country and folk music. SUSS, Daniel Lanois, Luke Schneider, D.C Cross, North Americans and others all dial into a lightly psychedelic world where New Age meets organic instrumentation and free-range composition.
Auckland, New Zealand guitarist Dan Sperber has been a mainstay of the city’s jazz scene since the 90s and in recent years he’s begun exploring the form of more traditional singer-songwriter material, with sublime results.
On Think On Your Feet (available on vinyl/digital) he’s managed with distinction to combine jazz, Americana and folk-soul into his own sound. The most immediate reference points are the work of Bill Frisell, the guitarist who’s made a career of joining the dots between genres, the soulful leanings of the band Spain and recent albums such as Charles Lloyd’s Vanished Gardens with Lucinda Williams, Frisell and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. The mournful sound of that instrument is one of the keys to the appeal of Think On Your Feet. Here, Neil Watson’s playing adds the esoteric and the cosmic to the sound of the record. It floats untethered, between the rhythm section of Olivier Holland (double bass) and Cameron McCurdy (drums) and Sperber’s own exemplary guitar playing.
In the hands of Sperber, his six electric strings are approached with real taste and restraint. Simple, perfectly-placed chords chime and occasionally gently clang beneath his down-to-earth vocal style before taking flight when a gap in the song’s structure appears.
On ‘Dumb-Arse Country Song’, after he sings “I’ve got a writer’s block in Nashville on my mind”, Sperber goes out into the rarified desert air, twisting and knotting notes into intriguing dances. Likewise on ‘It May Not Be Enough’, he decorates a traditional rhythm with filigrees and flurries of notes that push away toward the avant garde, taking the song with them. On ‘Double Tracked’ there’s a beautiful push and pull tension in the playing and melodies that nestles into your short term memory.
Lyrically Sperber interrogates the nuances and narratives of relationships. It’s a real delight to hear a natural Kiwi accent taking centre-stage. Delivered in such a languid and contemplative way, and with references to local places such as Orewa and Bethel’s Beach, it suits the landscape wonderfully. He leaves us with ‘Fake News’, a reference to a political year from hell but reclaimed for an interpersonal perspective.
The overall feel of the album, and the images it conjures up, are the open spaces of Aotearoa, the wide black sand beaches of the west coast, the rolling farmland and the vast tracts of lush native bush. It speaks to the organic nature of Sperber’s playing, his ability to allow both simple and progressive musical ideas to co-exist in their own fascinating eco-system.