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Gregory Alan Isakov at his best on ‘Evening Machines’

| Monday, October 29, 2018

Joseph Han | The Observer

When Gregory Alan Isakov isn’t tending to his three-acre farm, the singer-songwriter spends his time touring across the globe and recording music in his converted studio-barn. “Evening Machines,” born from these studio-barn sessions, tackles Isakov’s curious lifestyle with impressive clarity and depth. Isakov has long thrived at illustrating setting. Here, the musician too strives for new heights of introspection — and succeeds. It is Isakov’s best work yet.

The album opens with “Berth,” which Isakov describes as “an immigration song, about landing in this country and throughout time.” Isakov is himself an American immigrant; he and his family left South Africa during the apartheid when Isakov was 7 years old. Reflecting upon his journey, Isakov sings, “New York lady, holding in her heavy hand / sacred lantern, guiding dawn.” The line is poetic, personal and, unmistakably, political. This is not just one man’s immigration story; it’s a people’s history of a perpetually controversial topic.

Next on the record, “San Luis” explores the nuances of the farmer-musician lifestyle. San Luis is not one place, but two: the San Luis Valley in Colorado, where Isakov lives, and San Luis Obispo, a California city the musician visited on tour. This dichotomy is a prevalent theme in “Evening Machines” — is Isakov a farmer, a musician or “somewhere in between?”

“Evening Machines” escalates, if only briefly, on “Southern Star.” Clocking in at just 2 minutes and 19 seconds, the album’s third track provides a glimpse — one chorus worth — of Isakov’s energetic impulses. Clearly, the singer does not want to make a full-fledged pop song, at least not yet.

On the album’s seventh track, Isakov abandons this reservation. “Caves” uses the same sort of imperative songwriting, swelling instrumentals and reverberating hook as any decent Mumford and Sons single. But Isakov brings authenticity to his work. When Isakov sings “This town closes down at the same time,” one knows this town is his own, not one glimpsed through the window of a tour bus. Furthermore, the singer’s solemn vocals keep “Caves” from escalating into rural romanticism.

Next on the track list, “Chemicals” is a song of subtle trappings. The warm hum of the cassette recorder. The piano notes hidden behind guitar strums. The minimalist lyrics — “Coffee burns, the stomach churns / chemicals and caffeine.” But “Chemicals” is not a song that treads lightly. Written about Isakov’s struggles with anxiety, “Chemicals” contains some of the album’s most intimate lines (“Was it just chemicals in my head?”) and most stirring vocals.

Gregory Alan Isakov backtracks on “Dark, Dark, Dark,” which sounds better fitted to a Lumineers record than “Evening Machines.” Lyrically, “Dark, Dark, Dark” aligns with the “Evening” aspect of “Evening Machines.” Behind these lyrics, synthesizers and background vocals also contribute to the album’s gloomy aura. Yet the kick drum/tambourine instrumentation makes “Dark, Dark, Dark” sound more like The Lumineers’ “Sleep on the Floor” than an Isakov original.

Finally, Isakov tones things down for the album’s last three tracks: “Too Far Away,” “Where You Gonna Go,” “Wings in All Black.” The three songs reacquaint listeners with the aesthetic core of the record: dark ambiance, brooding lyricism, deliberate instrumentation. None are the most ambitious or striking songs on “Evening Machines.” Yet there is something to be said for the album’s felicitous closing thought: “I’ve been down, down, down, down … but now I’m here.”

There is a common thread in folk music that a fresh start begins on the open road. Gregory Alan Isakov holds the opposite. For him, there is no comfort in escapism. Rather, solace can only be cultivated from one’s home soil. Thoughtful, poetic, sincere, “Evening Machines” makes a convincing case for that sentiment.

 

Artist: Gregory Alan Isakov

Album: “Evening Machines”

Label: Suitcase Town Music

Favorite Tracks: “Berth,” “Caves,” “Chemicals”

If you like: Blind Pilot, Iron & Wine, Matthew and the Atlas

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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