There's that that unmistakable, mean muggin' grimace a guitar player gets in the midst of a particularly dirty solo. You know what I'm talking about. I pictured Thomas Nordlund wearing one of those many times while listening to his guitar driven, south of the border and ever-so-jazzy record, Divide Avenue.
That's not to say I found any parts of the album gratuitous or bogged down by show-off virtuosity—quite the opposite, in fact. Instead the live-recorded instrumental album variably brought back memories of that shared stage in the early ‘60s when jazz and rock guitar started to intermingle, as well as the wide open spaces and slow burning riffs associated with the American southwest.
Nordlund's distinctively Tex-Mex sound could draw easy comparisons to the likes of Calexico or Spoon—the latter bearing quite the resemble, insofar as the at times spare-yet-biting guitar work is concerned—but those comparisons might sell Divide Avenue a little short. If anything, it most closely resembles Valley of the Giants, the early-aughts Canadian super group that melded post-rock with organic instruments and resulted in a vast soundscape also quite evocative of the southwest.
The jazz element is also unmistakable with most songs clocking in around six-minutes long, and building layers towards nuanced, oft-monumental climaxes. While jazz can be such a general term, there's a distinct feel here in line with the aforementioned rock-jazz fusion—think Miles Davis' proto-funk A Tribute to Jack Johnson.
While Divide Avenue absolutely feels like one big piece of work, there are still a couple of songs that stand out and stand alone well. “Iron John” oozes cool with a big, searing baritone guitar riff that drives the song forward, but leaves enough room for some horns and bass to dance in the gaps. Both the fifth and sixth tracks plow forward with the reckless abandon of a great jam session, picking up enough riffs and flourishes along the way to be something really epic by the time they work their way through the last few measures.
The album was live-recorded at the Hideaway in Nordlund's native Minneapolis. Live recording can be a high risk, high reward business, but Nordlund and his half-dozen musical collaborators really pulled it off. Six or seven people playing together at once can create a big sound, but it can also fill a room so tightly that it becomes claustrophobic—the restraint and expertise showcased here create a vast, open space instead.
It's the understated moments in between, when gentle flurries of keys or low rumbles of bass dot and define the landscape, alluding to vast space being created, that make it all the more worthwhile when its filled. Divide Avenue is an album I can easily and wholeheartedly recommend to fans of slow-burning southwestern soundscapes and live jazz alike.
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