James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg
A1. “Up of Stairs” 3:49
A2. “Invention #4” 3:04
A3. “Dim Recollection” 3:24
A4. “The Narrowing of Grey Park” 2:52
A5. “The Unhaunted Williams” 3:13
A6. “Carrots” 1:08
A7. “Reel Around the Fountain” 3:37
B1. “Great Big God of Hands” 3:15
B2. “Fleurette Africaine” 3:27
B3. “Bee’s Thing” 4:04
B4. “Rough Purr” 2:54
B5. “Stern and Earnest” 3:15
B6. “Slow Train” 1:21
The second album of astonishing duets by guitarists James Elkington (who has toured and/or recorded with Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson, and Steve Gunn, among others) and Nathan Salsburg (an accomplished soloist deemed by NPR “one of those names we’ll all associate with American folk guitar”) is a sublime suite of nimble, filigreed compositions by two singular stylists. Belying its title—“ambsace” is the lowest throw of dice; snake eyes—the record thrives on a gentle empathy and generosity of spirit, sitting sneakily protean original compositions alongside gorgeous arrangements of songs by Duke Ellington and The Smiths at the same big hand-hewn table.
They say the only good thing to come out of Indiana is I-65 South. At least that’s how Nathan Salsburg heard it while growing up in Louisville, which receives the highway as it departs the Hoosier state and crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky. And if I-65 North actually left Indiana and made it as far as Chicago, where English-born James Elkington has lived for the past fifteen years, the joke could apply on his end too.
Be that as it may, it’s well known that of the five hours that connect Louisville to Chicago on the Eisenhower Interstate System, the four that bisect Indiana tip to tail and vice versa are among the most soul-bruising. Jim and Nathan can vouch for it; they’ve been making the drive for years: the former, when he and his wife (a childhood friend of Nathan’s) come to visit his in-laws in the Derby City, and the latter, when he goes to visit with Jim and family in Chicago. On either end, they’ll watch college basketball, hit the record shops, do some guitar playing. It was initially Jim’s idea for the two of them to do some guitar playing together, sharing as they did then and now a love for the traditional musics of James’ native isle (particularly as expressed by Bert Jansch and Nic Jones) and Nathan’s native state (especially in the hands of its darker practitioners like Banjo Bill Cornett and Roscoe Holcomb.)
Their first record, Avos (2010), was the not entirely anticipated product of this good idea. And after playing three shows in honor of its release, they returned to more typical pursuits: James, touring and recording with a small army of collaborators — Jeff Tweedy, Steve Gunn, Richard Thompson, Brokeback, Freakwater, Daughn Gibson, Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford, The Horse’s Ha, Eleventh Dream Day — and Nathan, as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive, as well as a solo guitarist (and accompanist to Joan Shelley) whom NPR has deemed “one of those names we’ll all associate with American folk guitar.”
Ambsace, their not entirely anticipated follow-up record, was from its inception an antidote to getting soft in the fingers; despite the playing done independently on both sides of I-65, both James and Nathan attest that there’s no guitaristic workout quite like playing with one another. (It’s a cheeky reference at that, as “ambsace” is a defunct term for the lowest roll of the dice; it’s also, perhaps more cheekily, something worthless or unlucky.) This second iteration of their twenty-finger collaboration achieves and sustains the limpid, architectural elegance and rakish formality suggested by the first album. Masterful miniatures like “Up of Stairs” and “Invention #4” strut out from the parlor with a spidery sense of swing, the cascading runs recalling the leaf-dappled play of sunlight on water (or on wine, or whiskey.) Elsewhere (e.g., “The Unhaunted Williams”; “Carrots”; “Rough Purr”), the intricate cross-currents of their duets liquefy and pool, demonstrating a mastery of restraint and space.
The record was composed and recorded in Jim’s attic studio over two late summer sessions, one year apart. Joined later by Avos alums Wanees Zarour (violin) and Nick Macri (bass), Elkington and Salsburg each brought in parts to be submitted to the experience, which was animated by plenty coffee before three, plenty beer after, with songs taking shape in some cases over many stifling hours (e.g., “Bee’s Thing”); in others, over a matter of manic minutes (e.g., “Stern and Earnest”). Tunes grew out of constituent elements assembled like a round of Jenga, with the occasional crash to the floor and outbursts of laughter. When the teetering edifice seemed complete, it was played till structural integrity was achieved and it sounded good enough to record. Their ten new compositions, plus the further inclusion of three covers—by Duke Ellington, Norman Blake, and the Smiths—offer an adequate representation of the influences brought to bear on the playing of Ambsace in particular, but also the players of Ambsace in general. When taken as the sum of it parts, “ambsace” in fact means a couple of aces.
- RIYL Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Stefan Grossman, Mike Cooper, Nic Jones, Roscoe Holcomb, Richard Thompson, Richard Crandell and Bill Bartels, Daniel Bachman, and Steve Gunn
- Available on virgin vinyl as an LP, with heavy-duty matte jacket, as well as on gatefold CD and digital formats.
- Vinyl edition includes digital download coupon.
Their melody-first sensibilities are perfectly suited to each other. Ambsace features playfully complex guitar work that sounds as if it was tossed off in an afternoon of whiskey and laughs. Their cover of The Smiths’ “Reel Around the Fountain” makes it seem like it was always a front-porch jam.
– Lars Gotrich, NPR Music
A great record takes you outside of yourself and reorganizes your world until it feels like you’re in a different environment, a different season, a different age. It’s rare to come across an album that manages to both get inside of you and force you further out of yourself, into some new expanse, but this one achieves both. Ambsace sounds like winter has always been approaching, like Indian summer never quite fades, like fall isn’t built around loss. James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg have made a record about chance and memory, telling stories completely in guitar vignettes that communicate universal archetypes wordlessly. But the quirks of the players themselves don’t get lost, even in a project with such a magnificent scope.
– Caitlin White, Stereogum
Its overall effortlessness sights why both of these dudes are some of the most highly regarded guitarists in the country. It’s almost shocking to hear guitars being played this way in 2015. Just when you think the instrument has nowhere left to go, you’re proven wrong by a pair of capable hands. Well, in this case, two pairs of capable hands.
– Randy Reynolds, The Big Takeover
The pair weave an intoxicating, intricate web that calls to mind the Renbourn/Jansch axis without being slavishly devoted to it. Nodding towards britfolk and blues forms, the album throws a few curveballs into the mix with covers of the Smiths and Duke Ellington — their reinterpretation of the moody Ellington/Mingus/Roach classic “La Fleurette Africane” is a surprisingly perfect fit. Wherever Salsburg and Elkington go, it’s always a pleasure.
– Tyler Wilcox, Aquarium Drunkard
Both men are careful pickers, disinclined to either flash chops or improvise around blind corners. They’re adept at tracing out lattices of interlocking melodic figures that invite you to notice structure and ensemble progression rather than either guitarist’s contributions. The same care and instinct for nailing whatever is essential that enables Salsburg and Elkington to make other musicians sound good turns out to be eminently transferrable to their own music.
– Bill Meyer, Dusted
The two fingerstylists seem to have the kind of musical telepathy that other musicians envy – the pieces here sound like they were composed by one brain with two pairs of hands. These tunes don’t revolve around anything as simplistic as lead/rhythm – the pair blend their parts so closely it’s impossible to tell who’s playing what. Mixing the folk of Elkington’s British Isles origins with the Americana of Salsburg’s rural Southern midwest, the pair take simple melodies and filter them through their prodigious technique, resonating with shades and nuances not heard since the last time John Fahey sat in front of a mic.
– Michael Toland, Blurt
A winding track that takes you on a journey, a dreamy yet lively trip, with each string bend and pick. Elkington and Salsburg’s complementing styles shine throughout, their verses blend perfectly, while still owning their individual place. It’s a genuine mellow folk tune, the perfect soundtrack for a lazy summer day.
– Lisa Brown, Stereogum
That was an inspired idea, because Jim is a great guitarist and a tremendous, empathetic listener.
– Richard Thompson on Jeff Tweedy inviting James Elkington playing on his new album Still, to Premier Guitar
Both of these men aren’t peripheral to the folk/acoustic culture but central fixtures in their respective settings, which is probably why their combined force yields such richly varied, textured guitar work. The best part of their music is the entwining lines of southern acoustics and British styles, two artists at the zenith of their powers engaging in fascinating conversation… Their guitar parts move succinctly but with quick instinct, the way fewer words are required the deeper you know someone.
– Caitlin White, Stereogum
5 stars; Album of the Week. Few things are better than stumbling upon an astounding new instrumental acoustic guitar record made by two pickers who never let their dazzling technique get in the music’s way.
– Carla Gillis, NOW Toronto
Featuring beautiful fingerpicking and a symphony of warm acoustic melodies, this is the perfect music for enjoying a lazy Friday afternoon.
Praise for James & Nathan and their previous album Avos:
Their playing and guitar tones are so complementary, so perfectly wed that I wouldn’t hesitate to put the duo up there with some of the very best acoustic guitar partnerships: Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn come immediately to mind, as does the work of Richard Crandell and Bill Bartels on their excellent, make that classic, duet record Oregon Hill.
– Raymond Morin, Work & Worry
One of those serendipitous things that seems to have come out of nowhere but once heard begs the question of why there’s not more yet.
– Ned Raggett, AllMusic
An album of delicate, insightful playing by two young talents.
– Fretboard Journal