Thomas Nordlund took an interesting approach to the recording of his debut album, Divide Avenue. After he finished demoing the material, the eight instrumental cuts compromising the release were recorded and mixed as the band performed live at The Hideaway in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
There is a wonderfully spontaneous quality to the album – even lacking the aforementioned knowledge, these songs seem like they have never existed until their individual recordings here and were born from the moment rather than preconceived. Nordlund’s influences are obvious and exert a positive hold over the material. Strands of jazz, rock, blues, and even a little light country waft in and out of the mix, but the defining element is Nordlund’s baritone guitar. It highlights every passage it touches with its benign assertiveness and lifelike phrasing.
Instrumentals aren’t always an easy sell, but in the hands of a consummate musician like Nordlund, the guitar becomes a de-facto vocalist and communicates without words. He creates a world with the first track. The performance of the album’s title song starting things off combines many colors, phrases and chords alike, with understated accompaniment to paint a vivid picture. This is headphone (or ear bud) music par excellence and it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine traveled slowly across a majestic, windy landscape.
He tempers the epic feel some with the comparatively conventional “Whiskey Rumination”, a reverb-driven and Tex Mex flavored border song with a slight outlaw edge. “Whispering Son” has one of the album’s best build ups. It moves from slightly disconnected passages near the opening into full on blues/rock guitar during the second half. His feel is every bit as important as his skill set here. There’s an undeniable aura of confidence emanating from his guitar work and a poetic sensibility in what he chooses to play that fills the music with ghostly melancholy. “Rilke in the Rain”, much like “Whispering Son”, relies on an orchestrated effect. The differences are small, but crucial. While “Whispering Son” pays off splendidly, you know what’s coming, while “Rilke in the Rain” resolves tension by releasing it in half measure before increasing the pressure. This is music for chasing your own tail; eventually, you realize there’s no way out of the gloom and, instead, it just keeps transforming. Unlike its twin track, “Wandering Daughter” dispenses with any blues clichés and goes full on jazz. It isn’t a stylish affectation, thankfully, but rather gives this song a much different texture while remaining consistent with the album thus far, i.e. focusing still on Nordlund’s guitar. The album’s penultimate track, “Iron John”, begins life with sheets of noise guitar interspersed with Nordlund’s customary melodic work before transitioning into a second half dominated more by keyboards and jazzy accents.
What a wildly creative work and it wasn’t a cakewalk. Nordlund’s sound and approach could be misjudged and ultimately self-indulgent as a result, but he never lets things go in that direction. Despite their occasionally lengthy running times, Nordlund’s eight songs play like lean focused works of art. Is it a perfect album, no, but Divide Avenue ranks among the best guitar instrumental albums recorded in the last two decades.