Gregory Alan Isakov's 'Evening Machines' Is a Moody, Intoxicating Masterpiece

Photo: Rebecca Caridad / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Colorado singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov releases his fourth full-length album, Evening Machines, and it's a slow-burning beauty.

Evening Machines
Gregory Alan Isakov


5 October 2018

"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.







Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.