Thomas Nordlund, respected sideman for artists like Sarah Morris among others, has released his debut solo effort. The Twin Cities based baritone guitarist’s eight song instrumental effort, Divide Avenue, is one of the most unusual releases in recent memory, but fits a mold. A number of other iconic guitarists have taken this tact – centering their guitar in stripped back musical landscapes and filling in the spaces with six string color. It isn’t wholly inaccurate to dub these songs “soundscapes”, but the distinction needs made that these aren’t skill exhibitions. There isn’t a single song on Divide Avenue that isn’t a fully formed composition with all recognizable components. This is an album from a well-rounded musician with the added good sense to surround himself with sympathetic collaborators.
The restrained mid-tempo stroll of “Divide Avenue” opens things up. There’s a smattering of keyboards mixed into the arrangement for extra color, but Nordlund’s guitar dominates. It isn’t an oppressive presence but, instead, dips into the music and unveils condensed musical phrases before falling silent again. The brushed drums are recorded quite well and keep pushing the tempo while still retaining their feathery touch. “Whiskey Rumination” seems ripped from the soundtrack of a movie thriller set in the Southwest. The guitar melody is even more “vocal” here than the first cut and whips up visions of desert horizons and long empty stretches of highway. “Whispering Son” brings Nordlund’s rock and jazz influences together with kinetic results. Tinkling keys and a restless, loping rhythm section strike an interesting counterpoint with Nordlund’s consistently eloquent, sometimes strident, guitar lines. Divide Avenue is long on atmospherics and this song certainly doesn’t disappoint in that area. “Ensenada Nights” dispenses with the clamoring for atmospherics and reverts to a much more guitar-centric stance. The rhythm section clearly follows Nordlund’s lead here and he’s much busier, in general, than earlier efforts. “Ensenada Night”, as well, slightly brightens the mood of an album otherwise steeped in shadows. “Rilke in the Rain” references a famous German poet from the early 20th century, but the knowledge is immaterial towards enjoying the song. The tempo slides back into something slower, more deliberate, and rely primarily on the guitar for the selection’s first half. The six strings slowly fades from the mix in the song’s second half until listeners are left with little else by the rhythm section. Piano parts are fragmented and keyboard runs are blurred before the song fades away. “Wandering Daughter” moves with loose-limbed confidence and keeps things uncluttered. Even the overt addition of horns does nothing to sway his view – instead, it brings the song much closer in spirit to something nominally happier like the earlier “Ensenada Nights”. The album’s final song “Sagatagan” bears a passing resemblance to Pink Floyd, particularly thanks to Nordlund’s stellar lead work, because of their spacious soundscapes and how everything has a powerful theatricality attached to it.
Divide Avenue will not convert every listener. There are many who, for one reason or another, simply don’t like instrumental albums. Any true lover of music, most of all guitar, who hears this will likely be blown away. Nordlund plays with equal parts deliberation and wide-eyed inspiration and Divide Avenue captures that indecision well.