There are records that make time seem to stand still and there are records that make listeners lose track of time, only reconnecting with reality once the music has stopped and the last note has faded. Tourist, the latest album by John Calvin Abney –– singer-songwriter, exceptional storyteller, and extensive multi-instrumentalist –– ushers listeners into just such a carefree and reverie-like state and does so with remarkable brevity.
Describing Abney’s newest from Black Mesa Records with such a quality may not sound like a compliment at the outset. However, considering it in the context of today’s typical full-length albums, which often span an average of 40-60 minutes over 10-16 tracks, by contrast, Tourist’s modest 31 minute runtime and nine track collection does stand out with in a positive fashion. The album is most notably impressive for how the music within not only establishes a complete and captivating world but builds upon and enriches the record’s fundamental premise –– open ended travel and the depth of rumination that comes with it –– in a seamless way. The sonic personality and instrumental color of Tourist remains steady throughout.
This is part of what makes Tourist feel so seamless and fluid. Abney breaks out a colorful array of instruments: acoustic guitar, classical guitar, Mellotron, harmonica, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, synthesizers, and percussion. Meanwhile, his dear friend and fellow musician, John Moreland, adds drums, bass, and his own synthesizers to the mix as well. And yet, the two gentlemen are able to weave the many pliable sounds of this instrumental assortment into an arrangement that is at once easy to digest and thoughtfully intricate in its composition, assembly, and application among the top layer of the duo’s snugly harmonizing vocals. The nuance of individual parts from one part to the next, from small and short tones of softly buffed synthesizer beeps to the distorted and sustained flutters of Rhodes and Wurlitzer keys, dance around the crisp but delicate finger style plucks of notes from Abney’s acoustic guitars, unveiling a whole soundscape that maintains just enough tonal directness to keep listeners from completely submerging into melodically free flowing the waters of psychedelic stylization.
Still, the imagery driven lyrical recitation in opening track “Full Moon Friend” combined with the gentle, rippling synthesizer notes underneath Abney’s layered and mildly distorted vocal, definitely set the tone for a trip –– even if a relatively tame one –– down a psych-inspired path.
feel myself sift
through the colors of the wind
and the places I’ve been
– Lyrics from “Full Moon Friend”
While Abney’s escapades on Tourist unfold in the chronological order of his experiences, that trivia tidbit feels inconsequential in the face of how relaxing the full listening experience shows itself to be. Though the narrative and introspective nature of the album’s nine tracks carry meaningful and emotionally substantial food for thought (a sentiment that rings especially true when one notes that Tourist was being cultivated in the midst of early pandemic days,) the songs as whole creations, allow listeners to take in and contemplate Abney’s messages without feeling like the the Austin musician wants to drag anyone back to the emotional paralysis and dread that marks that point in time. It’s a musical offering with a clear acknowledgement as a record made during the pandemic, which also visits and reflects upon about some of the human realities that arose during the pandemic. Yet by contrast, the music doesn’t channel an inescapable pull crushing mental and emotional gravity, nor does it overtly try to run away or distract from the attempt to look back, with melodies, tempos, sounds, or effects that insist upon maximum emotional brightness and recovered energy either.
There’s no denying the roots-based, folk foundation of Abney’s core approach to songwriting but with Tourist, there is a confident embrace of adventurous play with sounds that, for all intents and purposes, pushes Abney well outside the bounds of traditional organic folk. It’s a demonstration of careful balance on Abney’s part, between utilizing a lot of what, on paper, looks more contemporary and differs from what folk fans might be used to expecting for the building blocks of a folk record, while not running headlong toward these tools and tricks just for the sake of “sounding current.” This gradual evolution in Abney’s artistry and approach to the sound of folk and folk songwriting, evokes echoes of Aoife O’Donovan –– another folk writer whose sonic path has transformed over time, revealing a similar, steady shift from the familiarity of folk arrangements to an appreciation for the sonically atypical to come sit alongside her trusted acoustic guitar and distinct voice –– the latter two elements also being staples she and Abney share. On the other hand, there’s a vintage feel to the tone color and melodic pathways of Tourist. Abney’s snug harmonies and blurred distortions give the music an old-fashioned sound, while the melodies often traverse a friendly, singable, upward trajectory that neither resolves in elementary fashion nor leaves listeners hanging on a deliberately unresolved cliff.
The melodic phrasing of “Leave Me at the Shoreline” presents a good example, as the highest and lowest notes ever don’t venture too far from one another and the directionality of the melody will try to flow with the mood of the lyrics (e.g. stopping on a downward interval when Abney somewhat exasperatingly admits, “I need a vacation…”) but the song keeps on going to get the listener to a sense of melodic satisfaction, even if the central subject matter of the song isn’t fully processed. Meanwhile, the lyrics and and concluding chords of the refrain to closing track “Good Luck and High Tide,” put satisfaction up front on both counts. Abney speaks with declarative certainly and supports the final two assuring words, “I’ll return,” with three repeated notes –– one for each syllable –– that finish on a fully resolving tonic. It’s a picture perfect way to tie up the last track, until the realization slowly hits there’s at least a little uncertainty in the pair of analogous concepts Abney offers as his symbol of encouragement: One can’t control when good luck will come around. Realizing this and then hearing the way that the last utterance of this phrase opts to resolve in a fashion almost identical to its predecessors but with just a tinge of minor chord tonality that takes an extra moment to conclude, comes across like a subtle wink from Abney to the listener, of an awareness that the journeys explored on Tourist, both literal and internal, don’t necessarily leave a clean conclusion, even if it mostly feels that way. It’s more than enough to help take listeners on a “vacation” with their thoughts but won’t claim to impart a flawless sense of the absolute.
Keep up with John Calvin Abney through his official website and these social media platforms: