Gregory Alan Isakov

REVIEW: Gregory Alan Isakov “Appaloosa Bones”


Gregory Alan isakov – Appaloosa Bones

You can’t get much more “Boulder” than Gregory Alan Isakov. Sure, the singer-songwriter-multiinstrumentalist was born in South Africa and raised in Philadelphia, but since moving to what’s sometimes” affectionately called “The People’s Republic” area of Colorado, the trained horticulturist bought a farm where he makes music and grows produce that winds up in both Boulder restaurants and food banks. Most famously, though, he’s recorded five albums (including one with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra) of music that have come to typify the Colorado sound over the past decade and a half – full, but unfussy soundscapes, mostly organic, “real” instruments (with a little help from technology, as well as what Isakov calls “God Noises”), and lyrics that sketch vibrant images while asking the listener to fill in their own details. His sixth album, Appaloosa Bones, stretches out his signature sound even further than he intended, with melodies made to get yourself lost on mountain back roads.

Isakov states that he planned on making a “folky, small lo-fi rock ‘n’ roll record,” and while no one’s going to confuse Appaloosa Bones with Wednesday’s Rat Saw God, album opener “The Fall,” after a brief piano intro, does push forward more than a typical Isakov track. Characterized by intricate banjo and ukulele interplay (the latter from Danny Black), it’s ostensibly a story of an 1800s trapeze artist – “Nobody gets past/The trembling wire” – but “We all break a little when we fall/And everybody keeps saying, ‘Get up, get up’” has a much more universal message. Old-timey occupations appear elsewhere on the record. “Watchman,” one of the more piano-driven (courtesy of Leif Vollebekk) tunes on Appaloosa Bones, started out as a song inspired by Isakov keeping watch over sheep on his farm, but turns into a treatise on searching – “So take me however I seem to be, haunted I know/Our love got lost out there” – for what might end up being irretrievable. Isakov calls these two songs and “Mistakes” “brother and sister” songs, and the latter, while feeling bigger with strings and pedal steel, shares a sense of displacement with its siblings – “I caught a golden wave/It left me lost at sea.”

Isakov has always filled out his songs with a wide palette of instrumentation, never in a showy, jammy way, but always in service of the song and the mood. “Before the Sun” is a prime example, with Isakov’s banjo playing balancing out Xander Hitzig’s gorgeous fiddle line. The title song embraces the melancholy found in the dead of January – “They haven’t made no pill/To get us ‘cross the wintertime” – with hints of Rhodes piano, pedal steel and viola that’ll lend a chill to your bones on the hottest of summer days.

The best feature of any Gregory Alan Isakov album – in the whole process, from writing to recording to release to the listening experience – is that nothing is rushed, and that approach drips into his storytelling. “Sweet Heat Lightning,” featuring backing vocals from Aoife O’Donovan and Bonnie May Paine, gives us a man willing to let his partner take the reins – “You drive, let’s see where this ends/Let’s let the wheels wear out” – with some of Isakov’s best imagery. And album wrapper “Feed Your Horses,” with subtle strings and more lovely vocals from Paine and O’Donovan, is the ultimate exercise in patience – tending to home fires while a lover works out her sh!t: “Your crooked heart has left you to roam/Looking for love, you forget to come home.” In life, it’s questionable wisdom, likely to end in heartbreak. But it makes for a damn good song, especially when beautifully told.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Sweet Heat Lightning” – O’Donovan and Paine’s subtle vocals and Vollebekk’s piano line lurking in the background pair perfectly with one of my favorite lyrics this year.

Appaloosa Bones was produced and engineered by Gregory Alan Isakov and Andrew Berlin, mixed by Berlin and mastered by Greg Calbi. All songs written by Isakov, with co-writing credits going to J Wagner and Ron Scott. Musicians on the album include Isakov (vocals, guitar, banjo, drums, Moog, Rhodes, piano, ukulele, keys, Dobro, God Noises), Berlin (backing vocals, whistle, tambourine, keys, samples, programming, synth), Bonny May Paine (backing vocals), Danny Black (ukulele, acoustic and 12-string guitars, lap steel), Leif Vollebekk (piano, backing vocals), John Paul Grigsby (bass), Ilan Isakov (piano), Xander Hitzig (fiddle), Nick Forster (pedal steel), Rachel Sliker (viola), Philip Parker (pedal steel), Steve Varney (banjo), John Luginbill (whistle), Jeb Bows (violin), Aoife O’Donovan (backing vocals), Max Barcelow (drums) and Jesse Bates (pedal steel).

Go here to order Appaloosa Bones (out Aug. 18):

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Enjoy our previous coverage here:  Show Review: Gregory Alan Isakov in Durham

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