Review: Nathan Bowles – Nansemond

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★★★☆☆
Three Stars

You can’t deny that Nathan Bowles is an impressive man. As well as teaching, he is an expert percussionist and banjo player. He’s also contributed to sixteen LPs and toured on both sides of the pond from his home state of Virginia. No biggie.

Nansemond is Bowles’ second foray as a soloist. Inspired by the gradual loss of the Nansemond tribal culture, Bowles attempts to preserve the Virginian tribe’s name upon his new album — even though the name itself has been wiped off the topographical map.

The influence of the Appalachian folk music of Virginia is clearly felt in the album. Bowles is a master of the banjo, and I can imagine that seeing him play it live would be a mesmerising experience. When listening to the album you are transported. Instead of sitting at a plywood desk, you can’t help but picture Bowles sat on a white-panelled porch, looking over a white picket fence at the surrounding Virginia forests.

The highpoint of the album is ‘The Smoke Swallower’. It’s ghostly sound of a tinkling piano and ominous drumming evokes a looming sense of sadness. Yet I can’t help thinking that the track would work better as an accompaniment to interpretive dance than as a standalone piece to be listened to in the privacy of your own room.

Instrumental tracks take up the majority of the album’s running time. But when Bowles finally sings, his raspy tones of religious paraphrase, ‘Jonah/Poor Liza Jane’, aren’t half bad. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that musically, there is a simple lack of variation.

‘Chuckatuck’, the album’s next track, sounds almost identical to that which precedes it.

And then there are the playing times. Ten minutes of the same riff does not make pleasant listening — it gets quite tiresome and boring, even after two or three minuites. If the album were divided into smaller, decidedly differently sounding chunks, it would be a more satisfying offering.

It’s far from a horrific album, but sadly I find it just isn’t all that memorable. As it stands, it’s the kind of album that you listen to once, appreciate the musical skill put into it, and then put it back on the shelf and never listen to it again.

If you love a good hour of banjo playing, then Nansemond is the album for you. But unfortunately I don’t. By the end of the album I wanted to throw the banjo into the Virginian forest, and ended up feeling quite relieved that I didn’t have to fly all that way to put an end to Bowles’ incessant strumming.

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