“(Johnson) creates a kind of country post-rock. It feels like a universe unto itself.”
“The rise of ambient country…(Johnson’s) a part of a new crop of artists who emphasize abstract expression over linear narrative and conventional structures…a legacy that joins the dots between country and post-rock, experimental music and world-class pedal steel.”
“Hints of Reichian minimalism, spacey Tangerine Dream kosmische,
Eno-esque ambience and hypnotic New Age.” --Uncut
The follow up to Johnson’s acclaimed Balsams album, The Cinder Grove delves further into the compositional possibilities of the pedal steel guitar. This halcyon collection of tracks draws on a wider palette of sounds, adding strings and piano, to dive deeper into the sound bath of Johnson’s meditative music. The Cinder Grove is a profound, affecting statement on the nature of loss and irreplaceability as well as a major addition to the canon of Johnson’s work.
The Cinder Grove is a suite of requiems for lost places. Many of the spaces that once fostered affordable living and creative work now only exist in sonic memory, like the echoes of ghosts. Like much of the California landscape in recent years, some of these spaces succumbed to fire. Others to the equally inexorable forces of gentrification. While his 2017 LP Balsams was intended to provide the listener with a space for respite and calm - even healing - The Cinder Grove seeks to remember what has been lost while celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the natural world. Johnson dug through archival recordings from some Oakland (CA) DIY performance spaces to digitally extract their reverb and echo qualities. He then applied these effects - as well as the digitally modeled reverberation of a redwood forest - to the tracks on The Cinder Grove, allowing the pieces to bask in the lush virtual spaces, and in the process realized that these sonic re-constructions can only ever be approximations. We try to make spaces what we want them to be, whether in memory or in the material present.
Track notes by Chuck Johnson:
The sound of the organ that opens the album may be familiar to anyone who has heard the debut LP from Saariselka - 2019’s The Ground Our Sky. It also happens to be the same model organ used by Terry Riley on his classic works Shri Camel and Persian Surgery Dervishes. I felt it set a tone that, when added to the washed layers of pedal steel that build towards the end, creates the image of things being washed away, erased - albeit gradually - while other elements like the repeating high notes on the organ manage to hold fast.
The title describes the adaptation of some plants that causes them to release seeds in response to an environmental trigger or threat. The track has a hopeful tone - a moment of ease and release.
Inspired by the idea that a specific, although sometimes amorphous, constellation of people and places can help a community thrive and create space for something special to happen. The layers of pedal steel recede to make room for a quiet piano part played by my friend Sarah Davachi. I specifically asked Sarah to record the part on the piano that’s in her Los Angeles living room - a large, unusual space with curved walls and stone tile floors. The character of her instrument and of that unusual room come through in a way that feels alive to me.
Red Branch Bell
One unique quality of the pedal steel is that it allows the player to lower and raise different notes at the same time. Because of this, I am sometimes able to think of the instrument as a small string section, with cello, viola, and violin playing counterpoint. In order to reach for something that felt cathartic, much of this piece is performed by an actual string quintet and is inspired by the harmonic language of Estonian composer Arvo Part.
In California, the laurel underbrush that grows throughout the coastal redwoods, pine, and oak woodlands represents resilience to fire and hope for restoration. It has also been used for food and medicine by the indigenous people of coastal California for millennia. I felt like this image and the uplift of this track was the appropriate one to end the album.
released February 12, 2021
Chuck Johnson - pedal steel guitar, synthesizers, Yamaha electronic organ, treatments
Sarah Davachi - piano (Constellation)
Marielle V. Jakobsons - violin / Hilary Lewis - viola and violin / Crystal Pascucci - cello (Red Branch Bell + The Laurel)
As walls and barriers are erected around the globe, it's hard not to think of the music found on on this album as ever more relevant. An echo from the past. Still transmitting future possibilities. Chuck Johnson