“I’d work really hard into the night,” says Gregory Alan Isakov, in the press release for his new album.” A lot of times I would find myself in the light of all these VU meters and the tape machine glow, so that’s where the title came from.” Evening Machines, indeed. It’s easy to parse out the literal meaning behind such a title, but it’s impossible to deny that the title also seems to convey the overall mood behind the finished product. This is an album that could have only been made at night. It’s dark, brooding, and full of echoes and mystery.
Isakov’s fourth full-length album and his first in five years, Evening Machines was recorded at his converted barn studio in Boulder County, Colorado. It’s on this property where he also operates a three-acre farm, selling vegetable seeds and growing various market crops. That’s right, Gregory Alan Isakov is not only a singer-songwriter, he’s also a full-time farmer. Lots of artists steeped in folk or Americana talk the talk – Isakov walks the walk.
Not that you need to grow corn to write a good song. But the rural atmosphere Isakov immerses himself in seems to work wonders in creating an organic, no-bullshit, anti-rock star album. “I’m a ghost of you / You’re a ghost of me / A birds-eye view of San Luis,” he sings in the quiet, deliberately paced “San Luis”.
Isakov played a lot of the album’s instruments himself, but a good deal of musicians accompany him here and there, adding layers of analog keyboards, rustic strings, and ethereal harmony vocals. Nick Forster’s pedal steel on “Was I Just Another One” meshes beautifully with the dramatic string and choral arrangements, creating a near-cinematic experience. On “Caves”, a heavy, full-band sound is accented by cavernous, reverb-drenched sound design, with the mysterious lyrics and its elusive characters adding to the Southern Gothic aura. “I used to love caves,” Isakov sings. “Stumble out into that pink sky / Remember that bright hollow moon / It showed our insides on our outsides.”
While Evening Machines maintains a timeless, open feel – the sound of a future classic – timely subject matter creeps in from time to time. The opening track, “Berth” – co-written by Isakov’s brother Ilan, and whittled down from its original 12-minute runtime to a more modest five – addresses the issue of immigration. Over a lush, languid waltz, Isakov — a native of South Africa who emigrated with his family to the U.S. as a young child – sings of arriving at his new home in poetic, measured tones: “New York lady, holding in her heavy hand / Sacred lantern, guiding dawn / Quit all that looking back / I quit all of that.”
One of the album’s more musically sparse songs is “Chemicals”, guided primarily by the ever-present acoustic guitar as other instruments fall soberly in place. Despite some occasional intoxicating falsetto and other unique touches, “Chemicals” sounds like Isakov’s bid to make a somewhat standard, traditional indie folk song. But he seems too good for that kind of generic style and eventually rises above it. “Dark Dark Dark” follows along those same lines, albeit in a more percussive, singalong style.
Listening to Evening Machines — easily one of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year — you get the impression that Isakov is Josh Ritter’s eccentric cousin, and their styles are comparable (Isakov has toured with Ritter in the past). They certainly share a lot of the same qualities, both in their musical and lyrical styles. Underneath the rich, unique production technique is a master songwriter. On the epic, closing ballad, “Wings in All Black”, Isakov sings: “She turns to water, she goes slipping through the cracks / And all that you gave her, you’ll never win back / You circled the sun, you wore your wings in all black.” That’s positively Dylanesque. Not bad for a Colorado farmer.