Whole & Cloven
A1. “Words Spoken Aloud” 6.02
A2. “Chiaroscuro” 3.26
A3. “Blank Range/Hog Jank II” 6.23
A4. “Moonshine is the Sunshine” 3.50
B1. “Gadarene Fugue” 4.53
B2. “I Miss My Dog” 10.59
B3. “Burnt Ends Rag” 3.10
On his exquisite third solo album, Nathan Bowles (Steve Gunn, Pelt, Black Twig Pickers) again augments his mesmeric clawhammer banjo pieces with piano, percussion, and vocals. Instead of the programmatic place-based narratives of its predecessor Nansemond (PoB-16), Whole & Cloven offers a stoic meditation on absence, loss, and fragmentation, populating those experiential gaps—the weighty interstices and places in-between—with stillness and wonder. Straddling Appalachian string band music and avant-garde composition but beholden to neither idiom, Nathan proves himself heir to deconstructivist tradition-bearers like Henry Flynt and Jack Rose.
“Learn the true topography: the monstrous and wonderful archetypes are not inside you, not inside your consciousness; you are inside them, trapped and howling to get out.”
– R.A. Lafferty, The Devil Is Dead (1971)
The jacket artwork (actual, physical) for Whole & Cloven, the arresting new album by multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles, features a monochrome silhouette of a bull stretched to freakishly attenuated, Mannerist proportions, its stylized austerity belying the finely rendered anatomical details: horns and hooves, tail and testicles. Spanning front and back jacket panels, the bovine is cloven by the jacket’s spine, but also by its own animal architecture—a bright white stripe bisects its hide between head and hindquarters, interrupting its own body’s otherwise inky expanse. This bull totem—a detail from an untitled painting by Alabama vernacular artist John Henry Toney, which Bowles acquired from the artist while on tour—recalls both the work of fellow Alabaman self-taught artist Bill Traylor and Picasso alike, demonstrating the interpenetration of modernism and Southern folk forms. It’s an apt visual analog to the album itself, which examines, at both formal and emotional levels, and with a stirring sense of scale and scrutiny, both the aesthetics of discontinuity and the intersecting syntaxes of Appalachian string band traditions and avant-garde composition.
Since his last album Nansemond (2014), Bowles has sustained and strengthened his fruitful relationships as a ensemble player with Steve Gunn (drums, piano and organ, banjo); the Black Twig Pickers (banjo, percussion); and Pelt (struck and bowed percussion), while undertaking projects with new accomplice Jake Xerxes Fussell and old friend and mentor Michael Chapman, all of which inform this record. But he has also continued to refine his solo practice, carrying it far beyond the confines of any reductive and rote solo banjo designations. On this third solo album, his most exquisite, immersive, and ambitious to date, he again augments his mesmeric clawhammer banjo pieces with piano, percussion, and vocals (mostly wordless, some wordy). The result showcases the full range of Bowles’ compositional and performative versatility.
Instead of the programmatic place-based narratives of Nansemond, the seven songs on Whole & Cloven offer a stoic meditation on absence, loss, and fragmentation, populating those experiential gaps—the weighty interstices and places in-between—with stillness and wonder. Whereas its predecessor was directly inspired by the mutating environment, and his mutating memories, of his childhood home on the fringes of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, the new album turns inward, exploring inscapes rather than landscapes. Since Nansemond, Bowles has moved from the mountains of Blacksburg, Virginia—his longtime home—to the Piedmont city of Durham, North Carolina, an uprooting and displacement that perhaps precipitated the divergent iterations and forking paths on display here. The overriding sense of rupture and return is also perhaps suggestive of the frailty and solidity of human relationships, familial and romantic—they way we live alternately as halves and wholes. But Whole & Cloven doesn’t require a linear, unified narrative; its richly detailed, diversified sonic topography—multifaceted, mosaic, mercurial—is captivating enough on its own.
Whole & Cloven unfolds as a series of seven discrete, but interrelated chapters. The album is bookended symmetrically by the two recordings that bear the most immediately discernable, and brightest, shapes. Opener “Words Spoken Aloud” (wordless, naturally), with its buzzing percussion and crisp progressions, serves as an invocation, prefiguring the concluding “Burnt Ends Rag,” a post-ragtime number inspired by Bowles’ friend Jack Rose, Dr. Ragtime himself. The gorgeous piano instrumental “Chiaroscuro,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Terry Riley album, ripples with liquid ostinatos, showcasing Nathan’s facility on his first instrument. “Blank Range/Hog Jank II” and “Gadarene Fugue” each skitter along with dark urgency, gnawing and diving respectively, the former comprising two haptic halves sutured together, and the latter drawing obliquely from Moroccan Gnawa traditions.
Though “Blank Range” prominently features Bowles’ voice, “Moonshine is the Sunshine” is the sole song with lyrics, providing some levity in the form of absurdist, rustic koan-couplets: “My family, they’re just a tree, I’m just one of the branches/I know a man who hates to farm, but he owns a hundred ranches”; and (our favorite), “The moonshine is the sunshine, shining twenty minutes later/and ‘crocodile,’ that’s just another name for ‘alligator.’” It’s a Jeffrey Cain cover, twinning elements of two different versions: the original, from his debut For You (1970), and the version from Whispering Thunder (1972), both released on Jesse Colin Young’s Raccoon Records (briefly home to Michael Hurley, the Youngbloods, et al.) Album centerpiece “I Miss My Dog” contains teeming multitudes of memory and regret in its eleven vaporous minutes, crawling from stately, deep-water soundings to torrents of hiccupping, densely woven banjo and piano latticework redolent of anxious longing. It sounds like storm-blown rain.
As a whole (ahem), Whole & Cloven repeatedly swaps lenses, wide angle for macro, demonstrating a new comfort with long shots and close-ups alike. Inside the record jacket (actual, physical), Bowles himself, in a photograph by Brad Bunyea, spreads jam on a biscuit—split, of course—with an unnecessarily sharp knife, head tilted quizzically, grinning wryly. He looks like a guy who’s maybe learned the true topography.
- The third solo album by multi-instrumentalist Nathan Bowles (Steve Gunn, Pelt, Black Twig Pickers) is his most exquisite, immersive, and ambitious to date.
- RIYL: Steve Gunn, the Black Twig Pickers, Pelt, Jack Rose, Michael Chapman, Daniel Bachman, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Hiss Golden Messenger, Henry Flynt, Clive Palmer, Terry Riley.
- Available on 140g virgin vinyl as an LP, with heavy-duty 24-point reverse board matte jacket (featuring artwork by John Henry Toney), printed inner sleeve, and download code.
- CD edition features heavy-duty gatefold jacket.
Bowles has the power to transform the sound of a banjo—and traditional folk music—into something transcendental, often bringing the spirit of Americana to new heights. Nansemond positioned Bowles as a crucial force in folk music, showcasing his ability to interweave the genre’s communal spirit with chilling moments of ambient introspection. Whole & Cloven, Bowles’ colorful, uplifting follow-up … is an album that reshapes folk music into something boundless and new. Remarkably, it uses traditional folk elements and instrumentation to reach something closer to New Age music. “I Miss My Dog” is an exercise in subtlety, a gorgeous and impeccably paced elegy.
– Sam Sodomsky, Pitchfork
Nathan Bowles spends his third solo album, Whole & Cloven, splitting the difference between Jack Rose-ian acoustic romps and Henry Flynt-y drone jigs. Bowles’ “Gadarene Fugue” isn’t actually a fugue, but it does whip a meditative clawhammer banjo melody into a fury. With light percussion that clacks and shuffles in the background, a Gnawan-influenced bass line jolts the tune forward like swine compelled to run and drown in the river.
– Lars Gotrich, NPR Music
Nathan’s music is marked by both his deep study of vernacular American forms and his years-long dedication to the development of his own voice. He is a musician who respects tradition as he values experimentation, an artist whose work commands careful listening. This balance is what makes Nathan’s voice singular: as a player, he is fearless, challenging. And as a listener, I am grateful and inspired.
– Steve Gunn
8/10. He belongs to a school of contemporary musicians—guitar players such as William Tyler and Steve Gunn—who are rethinking folk music as an avant-garde form. On his third solo album, his style is scraggly yet sophisticated, ranging boldly from country drones to rambunctious rural ragas… Sounds like Philip Glass playing to barnyard animals. The standout is the 11-minute epic “I Miss My Dog,” which balances the cerebral with the soulful.
– Stephen Deusner, Uncut
His best effort yet, with timeless melodies blending seamlessly with hypnotic minimalist moves. He makes these juxtapositions seem as natural as a rolling mountain stream, while still dazzling with his impeccable technique. His rhythmic instincts are essential here, and set him apart. Wrapped up in lovely artwork by John Henry Toney and beautifully recorded by Jason Meagher, Whole & Cloven is wholly terrific.
– Tyler Wilcox, Aquarium Drunkard
4/5. Banjo picker for Steve Gunn et al., alone Bowles applies his clawhammer style to reverberating experiments, ragas, and an 11-minute meditation on loss. Lovely.
Fluidly melodic digressions and pungent dissonances generate a forward momentum and haunted atmosphere. Emotionally compelling statements.
– Bill Meyer, The Wire
8/10. Bowles pushes in a new direction, setting out not to make a cohesive album so much as to seek out new ways to tie an album together, to figure out whether or not the broken can still seem complete. With Bowles’ new record, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, it’s the cracks that let all the best, most revealing light through.
– Matt Fiander, Popmatters
8/10. Filled with shimmering, ecstatic moments … that explore the emotional ground between gentle melancholy and almost unbearable sweetness. A blend of soulful country boogie, avant-garde minimalism, and ancient string-band traditions.
– Jason Woodbury, FLOOD Magazine
Nathan Bowles writes songs for the quiet night of the heart. A banjo can speak, but Bowles makes it talk. It’s in the midst of trying to discern whether he’s making it speak on grief or the absurd that you’ll realize they’re one and the same. Come for Zen koans in backwoods plucking, stay for unsettling moments of noisy dissonance.
– Caitlin White, Uproxx
4 stars. The songs share an uncanny knack for completely engulfing the listener; you may find yourself losing track of time. It all hangs together brilliantly to form a restless, thoughtful, and constantly engaging collection that deserves to be heard by many.
– Record Collector
A mesmeric, shape-shifting music that walks effortlessly between the invisible boundaries of Appalachian tradition and avant-garde composition. Powerful and compelling.
His ability to combine traditional compositions with a uniquely modern sensibility has set him apart on his two solo albums to date.
A. Combines flawless playing with a deep understanding of tradition and a healthy engagement with the avant-garde. Intersecting advanced technique and a unique point of view, Whole & Cloven is the best of [his solo albums].
– The Vinyl District
A gentle pusher of musical experimentation, and his third solo long-player is almost entirely without vocals and almost entirely interested in art-enhanced folk music.
– Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
The feeling is not just one of a misty mountain ramble, but of a more connected, experiential movement, something secretly providential. Running his fingers along the banjo strings is the same as along the spines of library books. It is, at its core, an engagement with our shared cultural inventory.
– Tiny Mixtapes
A vast terrain of acoustic music that is his most gripping to date. Take this album and go, go wherever you want with it. Like water or air, it will naturally fill in whatever space you find yourself in, and you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in it.
– Tahoe Onstage
Wry, sad, troubled, and mesmeric compositions imbued with a spooked and grainy Appalachian potency. Rich chaparrals of deep buzzing color you could lose yourself in forever.
He could play forever without boring himself or anyone listening.
A portal through time.
Stunning. A Terrence Malick film with just a handful of strings.
– Steven Hyden
I have huge respect for Nathan as a musician on so many levels.
– Michael Chapman
Nathan Bowles is like my spirit animal. It’s the real shit … beautiful then, beautiful now. Timeless.
– Kurt Vile
Nuanced picking, waterlogged drones, and rowdy singing … captures the same spirit as his mentor, Jack Rose.
– John Mulvey, Uncut
Mesmerizing! “America’s Instrument”—the 5-string banjo—has found a profound new exponent in Nathan Bowles. His writing for the instrument is exploratory, at times wonderfully dissonant and always soulful; his playing sure-footed and hypnotic. One of my favorite musicians playing today.
– Glenn Jones
A stunner from start to finish. It’s a transporting collection of sounds that fuses age-old Appalachian traditions with cosmic drones, in the process creating something that sounds fresh and vital to these ears. The long, deep solo rambles that take up a good portion of the record are beautiful excursions that conjure up strange and spectral southern landscapes. Nansemond is mostly instrumental, but Bowles is nothing if not a storyteller, taking you on an evocative, transfixing journey.
– Aquarium Drunkard
Hypnotic. Like John Fahey, who conceived of American Primitive Guitar as a means of purging inner demons, Bowles has turned his emotions, memories, and preoccupations into a multifaceted work of art that can draw you in even if you don’t know a thing about the guy that made it.
Truly a revelation. It’s a supremely visceral, fried slice of backwoods Americana… an updated vision of traditional American song form without the pastiche.
– Other Music