Vermont-based singer, songwriter and banjoist Nate Gusakov gives us Many Mountains, a five-song EP recorded in late 2020. This album is a bit of a departure for Gusakov. He’s dropped the “plunky old-time” banjo (his words) for a full-band sound which features amped-up electric banjo, electric guitar, Hammond B3 organ, bass, drums, violin and backing vocals. He and the group recorded the disc live in a Vermont barn-cum-studio. As shown on the back cover, the group gathered on a Tuesday night, set up in a circle, plugged in and played the album. Gusakov tells us: “two takes for each song, no overdubs, minimal fixes.” The album breathes with life because of it.
The songwriting takes a folk approach, but the band’s sound is Americana and country with a hard-rock edge around parts of it. It’s familiar, yet different, right from the start of the opening track, “Working All Day.” The jaunty opening sounds like an electric guitar, but it’s an electric banjo, so the phrasing and tone are just a little bit different in a way that delights the ear. The workingman’s lyrics are perfectly complemented by soulful female backing vocals and a terrific B3 solo that just oozes over the track like warm butter working into the crannies of your toasted English muffin.
“Coming Apart” keeps it going with a banjo married to the train beat on the drums. The feel recalls Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” though with a different subject matter: “We were brothers long ago / Before these digital intravenous lines tried to feed us / Everything we know.” As on the first track, the backing vocals and B3 shine with Gusakov’s dad adding a fine string part. Only the ending felt odd: there was a good outro going, and then the band just… stopped. There was more for them to say.
The title track finds Gusakov breaking out the distortion pedal as the band takes a heavier turn. Heavy-metal banjo? It kind of works. “Song For Luis,” a haunting folk tune, goes back to the less-distorted banjo-led formula with a groove a bit like the Stones’ “Heaven.” The backing-vocal build out near the end is particularly beautiful.
After this track, I wrote a note that the song arrangements were falling into the same pattern: driven by plucked banjo patterns with various band members taking solos over the progression. This was keeping the album coherent, but I wanted the band to change it up a bit, and offer a different interpretation. Sure enough, the final track, “Dark the Night” does exactly that with the B3 leading the way and nicely shifting drum feels. It still fits in with the album’s aesthetic, but they push themselves a bit.
It’s pretty amazing what one Tuesday night in a Vermont barn can produce. With the right people, in the right place, at the right time with the right songs, you have a winner in Many Mountains.
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