Earlier this year, Pelt marked their eighth anniversary with a brief tour, and I was fortunate enough to catch one of their performances. I've come to believe that Pelt is best appreciated in a live setting, not only because of the music that they play but also because of the experience of being fully absorbed by the omnipresent drone that floats and hangs in a room around them. The crisp clarity of each utterance consumes the ears and provides a singular focus that is difficult to replicate when attempting to listen to an album in a setting filled with the distractions of everyday life. Instead, when you are at a show, the music becomes the sole intent, the prime directive, as it is the purpose for your own presence at that time and place. You have sacrificed slices of your busy schedule to be blessed by the drone, and they definitely reward you for it tenfold.
Once you have the initial exposure to draw on, the existing albums become a savory treat, highlighting the countless styles that the group has tapped or filtered, often culled from these very same live excursions. Thus, in my opinion, the greatest challenge presented to this fine band would be to distill that exceptional experience into a sparkling studio release, where the musicians could expand and nurture their live studies in a controlled environment, each distinct and iridescent sound given its own needed consideration to build a greater whole.
Pearls From the River does fantastic justice to this noble quest, without question.
"Up the North Fork" opens the album with the long deep moan of a low bowed string serving as the foundation for calculated variations in string timbre. A second bow is drawn precariously over a cello string playing two alternating notes, the tone of each varying ever so slightly above or below the root of the song, as set forth by the soothing bass steadily rolling in the background. The bow stutters on some pulls, momentarily eliciting a purer gleam, the string seemingly shivers to produce a shimmying essence not unlike a singing bowl, but the fleeting vibration echoes off and is replaced with other shifting pitches. After five minutes, the baritone banjo bangs out a steady strum that sends off a foot-stomper, while a hand taps away at a hollow source, perhaps the top or bottom of one of the instruments. A banjo incessantly shines and slides, melodies rise over the churning stringed sounds to draw the listener deeper into the swirling eddies.
The title track, "Pearls From the River," begins with Jack Rose rapidly finger-picking a lush 12-string guitar, producing a tinny reverberation that adds a ringing texture to the picked notes alone. Mike Gangloff skillfully provides spiritual guidance through the fluid and lustrous language of the esraj, an instrument of middle-eastern origin that has a certain timeless grace in its nature, each note seamlessly connected as the pleading resonance of the high chiming tones summons the ear's attention. The double bass of Patrick Best throbs and pulses below the surface, accentuating and then countering the tension of the building movements. Jack's plucking becomes more rhythmic, an even two-step that grows with intensity then subsides into a more concentrated and melodic cadence, dancing across the sturdy waves of depth emanating from the long-bowed bass. With only these tools at their fingertips, the trio effectively enacts a whirlpool of drone and impressionistic beauty, and the mood created is dark and brooding yet assuredly soothing and calming. As the brain begins to grasp the slightly changing ideas at work, the mind is free to wander among the recesses of consciousness, stopping only to ponder a moment in the music before stepping back once again to flitter through the gilded halls of ethereal existence. This is where Pelt displays their greatest strengths, in easing the concentration of the listener into an undefined lull between attentive and complacent, where it becomes possible to learn more about one's self in a single sitting than a thousand questions or answers could teach. Only when the guitar ceases to delicately twinkle does it become apparent that this journey is nearing its inevitable conclusion. But how far have we come in the interim? And where will the next trip lead us then?
Closing the album is "Road to Catawba," where Jack takes center stage in a much different capacity than on the previous track. Here his playing is more reserved yet still exemplary, taking the role of a lead soloist without overwhelming his partners at all. There are sections of single note bravado balancing against the root of the song's key, as well as equally impressive jaunts of intense picking and strumming that lend credence to the declaration that Jack Rose is the embodiment of living legend on the acoustic guitar. Mike's tanpura provides a mystical twang, not unlike a mini-sitar, aiding the aura with its natural swells and fades, proving a proficient complement to the mellow exploration. Anchoring the trip once more is the bowed drawl of Patrick's bass, stable and sure, coaxing subtle hums and tinglings from the large string giant in his able possession.
If ever there was justification for rewarding perfection, the majestic serenity of this album should stand as a definitive testament to man's incessant desire to realize heaven on earth however possible. Equally plausible is the assertion that heaven is not so much a physical plane as it is a state of mind to be achieved through meditation or other such disciplines. But perhaps Pelt has trumped both gods and mortals alike by revealing that heaven is what you make of it, what you want it be, when you close your eyes and listen.
-- Philip Smoker 2003 Oct 24, fakejazz