Review Summary: Johnson's latest continues his exploration of pedal steel guitar ambience and adds a few more subtle elements.
As someone partial to pedal steel guitar and ambient music, Chuck Johnson’ last album Balsams
was an absolute slam dunk. The Oakland guitarist traded in his steel acoustic theatrics for the transformative possibilities of pedal steel on that record, which almost entirely consisted of slowly shifting chords cloaked in reverb that spread out among circling leads and deep organ tones. It was a meandering work to be sure, but a luminous and surprisingly affecting one as well. Johnson continues this pedal steel-heavy approach with his latest record The Cinder Grove
, a more introspective album where he slightly expands his arrangements to great effect.
It’s apparent as soon as “Riz de Maree” opens the record with a looping organ figure that The Cinder Grove
is a different beast than its predecessor in subtle but critical ways—when Johnson’s pedal steel eventually floats in, it feels more ornamental than before, an adornment for the other elements rather than the main spectacle. Where Balsams
had a hazy feeling where pretty much any sound you hear could be pedal steel, Johnson blends those languid and spacey tones throughout this record with a string quartet and piano, along with more prominent organ and synth pads, to create uniquely voluminous hybrids. The Cinder Grove
is a more collaborative effort in this regard, and is better for it: on “Red Branch Bell”, Johnson’s pedal steel meekly opens the track, and backs away to allow for a string quartet to wade through five minutes of darkly churning chords. His guitar might
still be in there, but if it is, it’s swallowed up in the whirlpool of cloudy ambiance, merely another piece of a larger whole. Later, on final track “The Laurel”, Johnson takes the opposite approach as washed-out strings hover above his emotive pedal steel playing, the pallid melancholy of “Red Branch Bell” replaced with a skyward optimism. Although The Cinder Grove
builds on the sonic foundations set from Balsams
only slightly, each new addition to Johnson’s sound feels entirely welcome and easily melts into his arresting pedal-steel playing.
Johnson’s sound remains very subtle, even with that added instrumentation. The five songs here tend to bleed together, the instruments even more so. Parts throughout the album draw your attention immediately—the piano on “Constellation”, the careening leads on “Serotiny”—but The Cinder Grove
can slip into the background fairly easily, providing an undemanding ambient experience that “goes well with a good book or cup of coffee”™. There are a handful of sections throughout the record that feel amorphous, or like a connecting piece to a more elaborately arranged and written section; these spaces can feel like a baseline that Johnson returns to before a more musically engaging part starts to build. Still, nothing on The Cinder Grove
feels tossed off or lazy. Even the most wandering ambient sections feel carefully considered and meticulously crafted.
before it, The Cinder Grove
brings to mind gorgeous country sunsets—an immense expanse where pastel colours are born slowly and die out slower, mixing and separating in an unhurried manner; a casually arresting scene you can ignore entirely or immerse yourself in. It's a record filled with dazzling sounds and big, hazy emotions. And despite an occasional tendency to slip into the background, Johnson’s latest album is another deeply felt and deceptively rich record that rewards close listening.