Ginkgo, the third album from Field Guides, opens with the line, “This is just a place.” That also happens to be the title of Field Guides’ previous album from 2019. Whether or not there is any significance to this connection is probably not worth dwelling on, but it’s interesting in that it establishes a common thread across the Field Guides discography (which also includes Boo, Forever, the 2014 debut). The music Benedict Kupstas and his collection of musician friends make all seem to derive from a profoundly organic, indie-folk space that encourages stream of consciousness (both lyrically and instrumentally) and unique melodic lines seemingly plucked out of thin air.
The songs on Ginkgo take cues from influences as varied as Joni Mitchell, Yo La Tengo, and Big Thief, which accounts for the relatively eclectic nature of the music, but it also informs both the intense lyric imagery and the occasionally unmoored feel of the music. The opening track, “Judee at the Delaware Water Gap (A Prelude)”, is gorgeous in its aimlessness, with Kupstas’ ethereal synths, the off-kilter guitar noodling of Dan Knishkowy (Adeline Hotel), and the sparse, steady, upright bass of Carmen Q. Rothwell (Scree) providing the perfect atmosphere.
All in all, more than 20 musicians appear on Ginkgo, most of them are New York-area musicians, and many are fellow Whatever’s Clever label-mates. The variety of sonic delights throughout the record provides a soothing, all-encompassing sound. The single “Salmon Skin” displays the first evidence of a tempo – beautifully supported by Taylor Bergren-Chrisman’s sinewy bass lines – and lopes along with disparate instrumentation like saxophone and something resembling a mellotron. The song was developed out of correspondence between Kupstas, working in refugee settlements in Lebanon at the time, and a friend/romantic interest in California. The tale of longing is sweetened by Kupstas and Alena Spanger (Tiny Hazard) duetting on the chorus: “Slyly, I take my leave / And finally, finally, you trace the edge.”
There are moments when Gingko seems to take the shape of rootsy, low-key power-pop. “Agios Sillas” is a slice of opaque-yet-upbeat Americana that wouldn’t sound out of place on Wilco’s Shmilco. “Shall I put some more wood on the fire?” is Kupstas’ oft-repeated refrain, giving the song – forgive the pun – uncommon warmth. The collective production work from Kupstas, Shannon Fields (Stars Like Fleas, Leverage Models), and Nico Hedley (Beverly, Ben Seretan) results in a striking sprawl that straddles lines of folk, pop, jazz, and a healthy dose of experimentalism. Harp, cello, and clarinet – the latter played by Fields – give “Cicadas in the Lemon Trees” an odd, dreamlike quality that sounds like Van Dyke Parks crashing Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece sessions. Compare this with the following track, “The City Is a Painting” – originally released as a split single in 2021 with Hedley’s “Wordly”- the gentle, shuffling ballad that includes welcome surprises like Drew Citron’s harmonies and a beautifully noisy guitar solo from Kupstas.
Ginkgo is made even more appealing and musically rich with moments of raw, ambient beauty, such as on “The Petrichor Near Landwehr Canal”, where Kupstas plays piano, electric guitar, and synth on a gentle instrumental that’s occasionally interrupted by field recordings. Likewise, the mysterious lilt of “Margaret” matches an almost Tom Waits-level gothic ambience with low-key folk and oddly satisfying musical choices like saxophones, glockenspiel, and vintage synths, as well as the subtle vocal harmonies of CF Watkins.
The ginkgo tree is the last remaining tree of an order that once covered the earth in the Early Cretaceous period. As a living thing that stretches across many millions of years, it’s a fitting symbol for Kupstas’ musical vision, which is often rooted in the comfort and familiarity of nature. Flora and fauna dot his songs, as well as the warmth and hope associated with human contact. In the delicate, almost hymn-like closing track, “When I Pulled Slivers from Your Feet”, he sings, “I hope you remember / When I pulled slivers from your feet / Days we stayed in bed / Hunky Dory on repeat.” Caring for others and sharing a love of David Bowie. Benedict Kupstas is aware of the world’s beauty, and his ability to share it with the rest of us results in a wonderful new album to be savored.