Thomas Nordlund – Divide Avenue

Instrumental albums face an unfair rap from some as “dull” compared to lyric songs. There’s a likely unspoken and shared assumption among those individuals that the pop structure is so inherently formulaic that the medium doesn’t entirely work without lyrical content.

Thomas Nordlund’s first album Divide Avenue smashes those assumptions. There is a template guiding Nordlund’s approach to songwriting, performing, and recording this release, but there are countless shades and modulations springing from that point of view. When he revisits phrases with his baritone guitar, Nordlund might restate them note for note, but there are subtle variations in his picking hand’s velocity, angle, and so forth produce different inflections.

The music has a lot of spontaneity and even an improvisational air, but the aforementioned quality is a conscious attribute. Thomas Nordlund proves on Divide Avenue that he is an individual artistic force in his own right capable of making substantial musical statements.

There’s a strong sense of structure surrounding the release. The title track feels and plays like a statement – Nordlund lays out the album’s core, guitar-centered sound and essentially provides listeners with a primer for the rest of the album. His baritone guitar is a slightly unusual instrument, but never so sonically unrecognizable that it renders the album all but inaccessible.

Nordlund unwinds lazily paced phrases that, nonetheless, resolve themselves coherently. His note selection is impeccable – it may run the risk of cliché, but Nordlund’s spare style allows him to conjure moods and colors seemingly at will.

As its title implies, Whiskey Rumination has a brooding edge. The hard-boiled guitar, however, has rough-hewn attitude coming from it, a sort of slowly developing swagger underscored by Nordlund’s accompaniment.

Keyboards and horns take a much bigger role on Whispering Son and its relaxed groove benefits from the added color. Much of the supporting music on Divide Avenue concerns itself with groove and it’s not unexpected. Nordlund’s musings on guitar would lack direction without strong support behind him giving him the steady foundation to explore. “

Rilke In The Rain is one of the release’s best moments because of its dynamics. Few songs on Divide Avenue have the art of gradual reveal mastered so completely. Nordlund shows tremendous compositional patience bringing new elements into the track over time and the song’s shift from its atmospheric first half to a much more musical second half is strong testimony about his gifts as a player and composer.

Wandering Daughter is outright jazz, but it isn’t technically dense or inaccessible. Nordlund keeps his focus, throughout the album, on crafting comprehensible tapestries rather than attempting to impress listeners with hollow virtuosity.

Divide Avenue’s conclusion, Sagatagan, is a percussion heavy exclamation point on the album with appropriately elegiac guitar. It ends Nordlund’s debut in a memorable way and points to its strengths.

Despite an uniformity of sound, Divide Avenue parades a variety of voices for the listener’s enjoyment and each one speaks from an emotional rather than technical point of view. Connecting with this music isn’t difficult. It’s a vibrant work of musical art and one of the best instrumental releases in recent memory.

9 out of 10 stars

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