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TBTS Reviews: Jonathan Wilson, Gentle Spirit

October 8, 2011

Great album, somewhat ridiculous cover.

Cheers to the most recent “Next 20” list from NPR’s World Cafe for cluing me in on what Los Angeles already knows and the U.K. is about to find out — Jonathan Wilson is making some beautiful music these days.

Based on a few surface-level clues, it’s easy to develop a preconception of what you’re going to find on Jonathan Wilson’s debut album, Gentle Spirit. Wilson sports long brown hair, a full beard, denim western wear—sort of a desert hippie Jesus look. He’s a native North Carolinian who, a few years ago, relocated to famed L.A. music enclave Laurel Canyon, where his musical forebearers include the Crosby, Stills, and Nash gang, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and other luminaries of the 1970s “Take It Easy,” music-as-comfort-food scene. Wilson has gained local acclaim as the host and organizing force behind musical gatherings, unapologetically and unironically regarded as “jam sessions,” which emphasize spontaneity and improvisation among generations of musicians who call L.A. and Laurel Canyon home.

So it’s easy to think you know what you’re going to get on Gentle Spirit—a meandering, unchallenging, druggy set of loosely held together, rudimentary song fragments that really just serve as a vehicle for way too much guitar noodling. That’s probably what I would have expected if I’d had any other introduction to Wilson other than “Rolling Universe,” the song chosen for the World Cafe 20 sampler. It’s a taut three and a half minutes, led by an active finger-picked acoustic guitar atop a bed of nicely arranged strings, and featuring only one brief, well-suited (but still trippy as hell) guitar solo. Separate “Rolling Universe” from all the expectations you might otherwise harbor based on Wilson’s appearance and his Laurel Canyon pedigree, and you’re left with no more and no less than a really good song that transcends time and place.

A few songs on Gentle Spirit do fit the “Laurel Canyon” stereotype a little more fully. Much of the album is almost aggressively pensive, relaxed, and methodical. More than half of the songs stretch beyond the six-minute mark, and just about all of them unfold slowly, swooning and dreamlike. Importantly, however, Wilson seems consistently clear-eyed and purposeful in his pursuit and crafting of this beautiful haze. You might expect an aimless, living-room jam, “whatever maaaan” vibe to prevail, but just about all of these songs go somewhere, and Wilson seems to know exactly where he wants to take the listener. Wilson is a hell of a guitar player, but it’s never just about the guitar. He uses his lyrics to explore themes of contemplation, retreat from civilization, and solace in nature, but more often than not, Wilson manages to dig deep enough to avoid superficial platitudes about “peace and love and mother earth” and other painful folk clichés.

Along with “Rolling Universe,” album highlights include the title track, “Desert Raven,” “Magic Everywhere,” the startlingly epic “Natural Rhapsody,” and “The Way I Feel,” a Gordon Lightfoot cover that features some lovely organ playing and some surprisingly dirty, distorted guitar work. I also love two straightforward, unadorned country-folk tracks in the middle of the album, “Ballad of the Pines” and “Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler.” Most of the remaining tracks are strong, but these stand out for most effectively combining instrumental prowess, indelible melodies, and a disciplined approach to musical exploration.

I’ve edited this post twice now to keep adding to my list of “highlights,” which has now inched its way up to more than half the album. In other words, Gentle Spirit benefits from some real consistency and strength in songwriting and execution. These strengths have won Jonathan Wilson some famous fans in recent years, including Wilco, who are bringing Wilson along for several U.K. tour dates later this month. Assuming Gentle Spirit is a good indication of Jonathan Wilson’s live set, fans who turn up early for the Wilco shows will be greeted with an excellent prelude.

Postscript: Jonathan Wilson’s great production is a highlight of Father John Misty’s excellent Fear Fun. Great things going on in Laurel Canyon these days!

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