Posted by: Necci – Apr 23, 2012
It may seem strange to think that somebody who's been at least partially responsible for the layered textures of a band like U.S. Christmas could come up with an album as gentle and as spontaneous as that band's singer Nate Hall has with his debut solo release, A Great River. But really, his band's unhinged roar possesses a wide range of subtle inflection and, though their influence is a little more readily apparent with Hall's solo album, shades of Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt have subtlely made themselves known in U.S. Christmas' output. However, while A Great River might not be unprecedented in Hall's larger body of work, it's still a striking effort - an austere rumination on some of the more forboding intersections in Americana's lost highways that's loose yet focused, workmanlike without seeming laborious.
The album was apparently recorded in a single evening, no mean feat as any musician who's ever set foot in a recording studio can attest, and the determination required for such an endeavor permeates the album to its core. The musicianship is excellent - though there are occasional embellishments, the instrumentation is comprised mostly distorted electric guitar overlaid on acoustic strumming, with Hall's heavily echoing vocals drifting overtop. Each component engages in an uncertain entanglement with the others, with none clinging too closely to its counterparts, but never falling too far apart either.
The tone is largely somber, but displays a striking variety in the ways this is expressed, from the more guitar-heavy moments like “Dark Star” to a mostly a capella song like “When The Stars Begin To Fall.” It almost seems like a prerequisite for artists on this label to cover Townes Van Zandt at this point (Hall is the fourth artist on Neurot's roster who's recorded a Van Zandt song in the past few years), but Hall's version of “Kathleen” is reworked so deftly that it doesn't sound at all out of place – Van Zandt's influence hangs heavy on the album, but it's incorporated so smoothly that it's often easy to imagine the covers being originals, and occasionally vice versa (“Chains” could have easily been some long lost Townes Van Zandt song).
Hall's is a version of rural psychedelia that manages to pay tribute to a traditionalist aesthetic without actually sounding like it belongs to any of the pools of influence from which it draws. But more than calling to mind any particular artist's work, A Great River conjures images of open spaces and of the sorts of vistas that might suggest some positive ring to the word “deslotate.” Yes, it bears the influence of other musicians, but it also evokes a drive down Route 40 west of Knoxville late at night with no other cars in sight – stark and lonely but, if you catch the right view, eerily beautiful, in a way that few things are.
By Graham Scala