Charles Spano’s review of Damien Rice’s “O” on All Music Guide has a fantastic description of the ‘special sauce’ that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary and takes seemingly simply songs and makes them soar: “Rice is master of what critic/ranter Richard Meltzer called “the unknown tongue” – basically the musical equivalent of the “punctum” in photos; it’s that thing that grabs a hold of you, the detail that makes it happen”. Gregory Alan Isakov is also a master of the unknown tongue, and his ability to elevate the apparently ordinary to the undeniably sublime is a magical ability that only a very small number of artists possess. This is evident on highly anticipated new album, ‘Evening Machines’ released on Dualtone Records.
Recorded at a converted barn studio located on Isakov’s three-acre farm in Boulder County, Colorado, the dozen tracks were self-produced and mixed by Tucker Martine (Neko Case, The Decembrists) and Andrew Berlin (Descendents, Rise Against). This is Isakov’s first album of new material in five years and his fourth full-length studio album. It follows his acclaimed collaboration with the Colorado Symphony, which featured orchestral versions of twelve of his most loved songs.
The album title – ‘Evening Machines’ – references Isakov’s penchant for late night working in the glow of the recording and mixing machinery: “I’d work really hard into the night. 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. I recorded mostly at night, when I wasn’t working in the gardens. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter, morning or afternoon, this music always feels like evening to me.”
Although Isakov was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, he now calls Colorado home; therefore, travelling but never fully settling is a motif that infects Isakov’s work. In his songs, this can include geographical, emotional or temporal journeys.
On ‘Evening Machines’ the theme of darkness or night is present in many of the songs. There is a recurring reference to the moon and constellations – a man trying to locate, and come to terms with, his place in the universe. Isakov is the master of using small references, whether words or sounds, to indicate big themes, applying them to his sonic canvas to create feelings and emotions.
Album opener ‘Berth’ imagine someone being greeted by the Statue of Liberty as they start on a journey for a new life in a new land: “Quit all that looking book, I quit all of that.” There’s a sense of apprehension on the journey but a strident resolution to move forward. ‘San Luis’ follows Isakov’s classic template of seemingly understated music and vocals but applied in multiple small applications of the brush that slowly reveal the picture as you move away from the canvas.
Isakov is an expert in deceptive sparseness. There is a beauty in the simplicity that he delivers but this kind of simple beauty is complex to achieve.
‘Southern Star’ continues the journeying motif; the song reminiscent of a ship trying to safely navigate choppy seas – weaving between periods of calm and rough: “Still we are slaves to the siren of the salty sea.” It flirts with becoming a sea shanty but never fully materialises into one.
‘Powder’ is like a tone poem – a perfect example of Isakov’s power to throw words together to create a sense of something that is more than the sum of those parts: “and the background noise goes fading now no sounds, just the quiver of a lip even the moon’s half holding back.”
‘Bullet Holes’ similarly paints a luscious picture with a very limited palette. It’s a song about a journey away from battles and towards love – travelling, searching, hoping and yearning. Isakov’s songs always betray an emotional honesty whether fully expressed or implied. ‘Was I Just Another One’ puts hearts on lines with a plaintiff call and response. He’s thinking out loud and working things through, always to a backdrop of beautiful, understated instruments, voices and sounds.
‘Caves’ is a temporary sonic diversion with an initial thundering beat that is different in texture to most of the album, but not at all unwelcome. In this song, Isakov again demonstrates emotional vulnerability and uncertainty which manifests as a fear of moving forward. The same themes are present in single ‘Chemicals’ – all self-reflection and doubt but ultimately resolved. Isakov has a splendid turn of phrase which deftly creates a sonic canvas that moves the listener along with him, keen to go on the same journey and feeling rewarded at journey’s end.
References to forest fires and the Blood of Christ Mountains in his adopted homeland of South Colorado and New Mexico are weaved into current single ‘Dark, Dark, Dark’, another story of someone wanting to move and travel. ‘Too Far Away’ continues the lunar and celestial themes. The song builds beautifully and describes and implies the sense of always reaching, always searching, always moving, never settled.
‘Where You Wanna Go’ is almost a meditative piece. Actually, the simple, repeated lyrics don’t really say much on their own but when combined with Isakov’s ability to master the ‘unknown tongue’, it takes on a more expansive sounds and feel. It’s a great example of the fantastic production on this album. Finally, album closer ‘ Wings In All Black’ brings things to an optimistic conclusion – “I’ve been down but now I’m here’.
Like all great artists, Isakov puts some of himself out there and invites the listener to explore it with him. As a result, he has created another stunning album with beautiful brush strokes and deft imagery. That’s why he’s the perfect travelling companion.
Gregory Alan Isakov will be touring extensively in support of ‘Evening Machines’ throughout October, November and December of 2018.
- 8: Portland, OR – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with the Oregon Symphony
- 9: Seattle, WA – Moore Theatre
- 10: Vancouver, BC – Commodore Ballroom
- 12: Chico, CA – Senator Theatre
- 13: San Luis Obispo, CA – Fremont Theatre
- 14: San Diego, CA – Music Box
- 16: Los Angeles, CA – Theatre at Ace Hotel
- 18: Austin, TX – Emo’s
- 19: Dallas, TX – Granada Theatre
- 20: Kansas City, MO – The Truman KC
- 2: Omaha, NE – Sokol Auditorium
- 3: Iowa City, IA – Englert Theatre
- 4: Des Moines, IA – Wooly’s
- 5: Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
- 7: Chicago, IL – The Vic Theatre
- 8: Toronto, ON – Mod Club
- 9: Montreal, QC – L’Astral
- 10: Hartford, CT – Infinity Hall
- 11: Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
- 12: New York, NY – Irving Plaza
- 14: Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
- 15: Brooklyn, NY – Warsaw
- 16: Boston, MA – Royale
- 17: Boston, MA – Royale
- 20: Brussels, Belgium – Orangerie Botanique
- 21: Hamburg, Germany – Uebel & Gefaehrlich
- 23: Oslo, Norway – John Dee
- 24: Stockholm, Sweden – Nalen
- 25: Copenhagen, Denmark – VEGA
- 27: Amsterdam, Netherlands – Paradiso
- 29: Berlin, Germany – Passionkirche Kreuzberg
- 30: Cologne, Germany – Gloria
- 1: Zurich, Switzerland – Mascotte
- 2: Paris, France – La Maroquinerie
- 4: London, UK – O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
- 5: Bristol, UK – SWX
- 7: Dublin, Ireland – Academy
- 8: Glasgow, Scotland – Saint Luke’s
- 9: Manchester, UK – Academy 3