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Mike & Cara Gangloff: Poplar Hollow

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Mike & Cara Gangloff: Poplar Hollow

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Nathan Bowles: Polar Satellites (w/ Scott Verrastro)

When they began nearly two decades ago, Pelt were basically a rock group like any other. But as their songs began to stretch to album-length sides, they sounded more like a gathering of voices slowly unifying into a single, grand vision. Which makes it a little odd that, until recently, only one of those voices -- the late, master finger-picker Jack Rose -- had made much in the way of solo music. But last year Pelt's Nathan Bowles stepped forward with A Bottle, A Buckeye, an excellent set of acoustic ditties that built on his work with ol' time side project The Black Twig Pickers.

Now Mike Gangloff, also a member of both Pelt and The Black Twig Pickers, has made his first official solo album, and it's even better. Gangloff is a self-taught fiddle and banjo player, and though he's done both long enough to know his way around the instrument, his approach is still raw enough to match the Appalachian music that influences him. This lack of precise technique paradoxically sharpens the focus of the music -- he starts with a sound in mind, and figures a way to get it.

Poplar Hollow sits squarely within Southern traditions, but frequently approaches minimalist mantra and drone based psychedelia. As a fiddler, Gangloff shares Henry Flynt's knack for turning simple notes into long, ringing tones, with help from Cara Joyce on the harmonium-like sruti box. It vibrates your core more than it enters your ears. The effect persists in his banjo playing. Take "Ironto Farewell": As "Ironto Special" on The Pickers Soon One Morning album in 2002, it came off as a pleasant, twangy jam. But here, leaning hard on its repeated phrases, Gangloff gives the tune more nerve and urgency. By the end it sounds more like an electronic loop than a fingerpicked figure.

Polar Satellites, Bowles' percussion collaboration with Kohoutek drummer Scott Verrastro, is similarly hypnotic.  The territory the pair explores is familiar from Pelt, with Bowles often bowing and grinding over Verrastro's busy hits. But there's all kinds of modes evoked here: free jazz, Ambient sound, busy noise, even African-like rhythmic cycles evoking the distorted rhythms of Konono No. 1. Things get pretty heavy, but there's an openness throughout. Which might explain why the album's best moment is its simplest; halfway through the 14 minute 'Palanquin Opiate', over a rare straight beat from Verrastro, Bowles morphs bells into banjo in a way that's oddly catchy. In the context of the album's sprawling landscape, it might be the duo's most fearless move.

-Marc Masters, The Wire