[7 July 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s certainly some talking points leading into Date Palms’ third record, The Dusted Sessions. The duo, Gregg Kowalsky and Marielle Jakobsons, added two new members in tanpura player Michael Elrod and guitarist Noah Phillips. And yes, you can hear the contributions of these new players in exciting ways here. But to talk about the players themselves, or even the instruments, references a physicality that seems foreign to Date Palms’ sound.
In fact, the name of the album – The Dusted Sessions – with its reference to recording dates, to putting players in a room with mics and recording equipment to make this sound, it feels strange. To think of the walls of a studio is to think of a space that can’t seem to contain the sounds on this record. These movements resist even that broad kind of constraint. The dust though is very much here, rolling out in billowing curls across the expanse of these sounds. This is music that creates its own geography, so while the title implies performance, this is stuff that feels more felt than played, more poured out than amplified and recorded.
The songs themselves seem to give us more fitting titles to reveal the album’s intentions. Opening track “Yuba Source I” (it has a companion piece later in the record), puts all the players out there in tribute to the Yuba River, located in the Sacramento Valley. This is the music of wide-open spaces, but also of the river itself. Kowalsky’s keyboards drift in the background in warm phrasings and swirling foundations, while Jakobsons’ violin establishes the bittersweet melody, one of equal parts discovery and awe. The song grows over its 11-minute run time, and eventually Jacobsons’ work bleeds into Phillips slicing guitar and the spacious twang of Elrod’s tanpura. The song doesn’t unravel but rather swells, flowing like the Yuba – one imagines – and while it repeats its themes, you’re left with the feeling that, no matter when you come into the song, you’re never stepping in the same river twice.
This is the kind of ambient but muscles instrumental music that has a kind of inevitability to it. Its success comes, often, not in surprising us with its size – because we already know the ambition of it – but rather in the sheer execution of it, in the precision of something that seems, on its surface, so imprecise. So you’re impressed by the soaring groan of “Six Hands to the Light” or the dark swells of “Yuba Reprise”, a shadow to the hazy light of “Yuba Source I”. But while Date Palms do achieve that inevitability of size and sound that so much ambient and post-rock and drone music all go for, it does more than that.
Inside of that swelling size are some smack-in-the-face surprises, some hairpin turns in what feels like a straight and broad path. “Night Riding the Skyline” is the other big piece here, clocking in at nearly 12 minutes, but its feels like its own isolated piece. The guitars no longer groan, they pull on swampy blues riffs, and when the simple, shuffling beat kicks in to propel the sound forward – augmented by Kowalsky’s skittering synth treatments – it’s a revelation, a sort of industrial blues-rock meditation that turns the brightness of the first half of the record on its head, revealing the worry under all that discovery, the fear under all that wide-open freedom. So while you may feel the frustration mounting, you’re still floored by the wall of distorted guitars that blow open “Dusted Down”, the album’s most frenzied performance. It’s a final salvo of order, or emotion formed into bracing shape, before the equally effecting improvisation of the soft closer “Exodus Due West”.
All these moments blend together seamlessly, and yet each feels significant and whole on its own. Despite the physical changes to the band, the physical title of the record, this is more than the sum of a recording session. The Dusted Sessions is a careful and wonderfully executed trip through two sides of discovery, through the sunburst of awe and the shadow it leaves behind – the search for meaning, the smallness of the individual in the world, the knowledge that what was once unknown is now known, different to you merely because you’ve seen it. These are complicate ideas of how we interact with our surroundings and why we seek out new ones. Date Palms capture those ideas brilliantly on this record, boring beautiful little holes in them along the way.