When instrumental music works, it works for the same reasons it always has. Stripping away lyrical content forces listeners to focus on elements that otherwise might get short shrift – arrangement, melody, harmony, and individual playing. Thomas Nordlund gives listeners a lot to do. Multiple musicians appear on Divide Avenue and help create sonic movies invoking landscape, emotion, and action in equal measure. Nordlund’s own playing on baritone guitar draws from a deep grab bag of approaches like jazz and blues mixed in a potent stew of chords, coherent melodies, masterful vibrato, and a perfect touch for the instrument. His musical presence doesn’t consume every second of the album, but it’s the force lurking at its center and drawing all other musical elements into its orbit.
“Divide Avenue” sets the stage with the same aforementioned combination of chords, melody, and lead licks. It’s a moody piece, like many of the songs are on Divide Avenue, but there are subtle shadings of mood scattered across the performance. The rhythm section draws attention for their playing here as they will elsewhere.
“Whiskey Rumination” sounds, on the surface, much more pensive than it actually is. The song rolls by with simmering, mid-tempo menace and the drumming, specifically, helps push its attitude to the edge. “Whispering Son” comes off as confident, ambling jazz with stronger than usual guitar. The muscular six string work and another great drumming turn from Lars-Erik Larson gives its jazz leanings added oomph.
A lighter hand is in evidence on “Ensenada Nights” and it percolates with an entertaining, understated sultriness not common to Nordlund’s album. “Rilke in the Rain” is something entirely different, a quasi-progressive exploration of sound within some well defined confines. The title refers to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and, based on that, one can only assume Nordlund is aiming at some sonic invocation of the author’s character. It certainly has a dream-like air, but it’s a dream streaked with darkness and shadows.
“Wandering Daughter” is a free-floating jazzy excursion marked a little different by Nordlund’s eloquent and occasionally fiery guitar. The album’s final song, “Sagatagan”, is one of its finest moments thanks to a superbly constructed arrangement propelled forward, largely, by Nordlund’s guitar.
Based out of Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, Nordlund is an anomaly in our world. This is an American musician who brings a good sense of what audiences want, his own ambitions, and musical facility to his work and manages to balance those competing elements better than most. Divide Avenue shows off this balance splendidly. Its eight songs never run on too long, fire the imagination right off, and are fleshed out by top notch players who seemingly understand everything Nordlund does or are simply willing to trust his vision. You’ll hear few albums ever that are this diverse and so successful at pulling it off.