Guitar-driven instrumental albums have historically enjoyed scant popularity. The emergence of fusion in the 1970’s saw bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and guitar icons like Jeff Beck releasing seminal full-length instrumental albums garnering critical acclaim and retaining a strong cult following through present day. The subgenre faded from mainstream notice during most of the next two decades, but by the mid-nineties, bands like Earth and Sunn O))), among others, restored life to the genre as a very different animal and mainstream legends like Neil Young even turned their hand to similar efforts with his Dead Man soundtrack album. Thomas Nordlund’s debut solo album, Divide Avenue, is very much in the vein of Young’s album. Its eight songs are focused around his baritone guitar, but Nordlund employs a wide array of instrumentation that the aforementioned artists wouldn’t consider. They are complete works and not merely vehicles to prove Nordlund’s instrumental prowess.
He opens the album with its title song. “Divide Avenue”. The track typifies much of the album’s songwriting approach and doesn’t immediately show its cards. It accumulates, instead, each new phrase for Nordlund’s guitar added to an expanding narrative, and reaches its resolution in unusual ways. Many pop songs are catchy grab bags of ideas ram-rodded together or else predictable romps through clichéd formulas, but Nordlund’s compositions have impressive and often inevitable unity. “Whiskey Rumination” has a smoky, almost noir feel thanks to its guitar, but the rhythm section’s light swing accentuates that nicely and gives the song some added behind the beat drag. The muted opening of “Whispering Son” gradually blooms into a carefully threaded musical texture supporting added strands of keyboards and brass. It more pronounced jazz pedigree than either of the album’s first two tracks and its follow-up, “Ensenada Nights”, further indulges Nordlund’s jazz influences. The result is far from toothless, Nordlund comes at jazz with the same exploring, spontaneously inspired spirit heard in the album’s remaining cuts. “Rilke in the Rain” might be the strongest choice for showing his peak songwriting. There’s a subtle orchestrated quality to this track – it creeps towards escalation, subsuming new elements slowly, and thereby maximizes its potential tension.
Payoffs don’t come on this album like they do with outright pop or rock efforts. The fullest realization of a Divide Avenue song is the sensation they are fully born and represent the clearest expression of their creator’s vision. “Iron John” locks onto a groove quick and follows it from the song’s light noise rock opening section through a practically contrapuntal second half. The guitar fades from its prominent place in the mix while the brass and percussion takes over. Divide Avenue requires two or more listens before you begin to full appreciate Thomas Notdlund’s aims here. This is ambitious fare. In some ways, Nordlund’s songs on Divide Avenue act as novelistic observers of their creator’s mental life, translated into song, and assigned meaning.