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Nathan Bowles
Plainly Mistaken Noel Gardner , November 15th, 2018 13:10

A fourth solo album from the North Carolina banjo player with talented accomplices and beautiful ideas

Over the last year or so, there’s been a pleasing ripple of musicians who, having internalised the old-timey American folk sound, produced work that at least makes an attempt at originality (as opposed to doe-eyed imitation). The debut House And Land album from 2017 is this reporter’s contemporary gold standard, with the more recent solo album by Sarah Louise of the duo not far behind; 2018 releases by Anna & Elizabeth and British solo guitarist Gwenifer Raymond also warrant consideration. Nathan Bowles, a banjo player from North Carolina, has some pedigree in this field – a member of the Black Twig Pickers (whose number also includes House And Land’s Sally Anne Morgan), he played alongside Jack Rose in the late 2000s, shortly before the Rose’s untimely death. Plainly Mistaken, Bowles’ fourth solo album, goes some way to demonstrating what a glowing legacy Rose left behind.

Actually, this isn’t a solo album strictly speaking, or at least it’s Bowles’ first time using outside help: drummer Rex McMurry, who also plays in endearing yacht-psych band Cave, and double bassist Casey Toll. It definitely feels like the banjo player’s vision, though. His first standalone instrumental (of two), ‘Umbra’, is minimalist and tender American primitivism which offsets the album’s more rollicking turns. ‘Ruby’, a cover of a cover – Silver Apples via mid-century bluegrass favourite Cousin Emmy – is a brisk hoedown whose minor chords and non-trad tunings can’t disguise an innate dust-kicking energy, yet it presently segues into ‘In Kind I’ and an improvised soup of Tony Conrad-ish string drone – later picked back up for reasonably titled penultimate track ‘In Kind II’.

Then there are the parts where Bowles, McMurry and Toll are operating as a legit and weighted trio, none finer than on epic ‘The Road Reversed’. Over nearly 11 minutes, it wends its way through hypnotic landscapes, verdant but calm; it thrums with the freedom of Can and the hillbilly microtonality of 75 Dollar Bill – a godly combo. That’s not to take the shine off the mid-paced likes of ‘Elk River Blues’ or ‘Fresh & Fairly So’, which both have quite the Celtic lilt woven into their Appalachian picking and canyon-deep acoustic bass tones. With Plainly Mistaken, Nathan Bowles has stepped out of the Black Twig Pickers’ shadow and demonstrated his vitality in forging new routes through old-timey music.