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-  Label: 'Self Released'
-  Genre: 'Folk' -  Release Date: '11th June 2012'

Our Rating:
You won't find any rollicking sea shanties on Nels Andrews' superb third album but, nevertheless, many of the songs evoke the spirit and atmosphere of the ocean.

When not contemplating the aquatic life, Andrews reflects on those times when, as he sings on Starboard, we feel "caught between the shore and the sea".

As the sleeve notes explain, he was drawn to a nautical theme by reflecting on how sailors on whaling ships endured long periods of contemplation (and rum drinking!) broken by short bursts of dramatic, and often dangerous, activity.

The album title refers to the art of carving or incising intricate designs on whalebone or whale ivory and, by a happy coincidence, it was recorded overlooking the naval docks in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Andrews' previous album Off Track Betting was warmly praised here at Whisperin' & Hollerin' for its low-key, atmospheric qualities. Similar praise is merited for Scrimshaw but this is also a huge leap forward both in terms of song writing and production values.

There is an elegance and precision to what he calls the "little scrimshawed stories" that make up the nine tracks on this album.

They are lyrically rich songs which, rather than simply telling stories, are built around the notion of preserving moments and capturing memories.

The lines range from the enigmatic "bottle the solitude of the canopied air" (Flotsam), the worldly wise "real beauty is wild" (Barroom Bards) to the romantically idealistic "we may be old but the night and the world are young" (Wisteria).

An affinity for impressionist poetry is plain from such wordplay as it is from a simple yet effective voice and banjo arrangement of Three Hermits by WB Yeats which begins with the lines "Three old hermits took the air by a cold and desolate sea".

A small group of ,mainly acoustic, musicians enriches these tunes; especially alluring are those with pedal steel guitar and violin backing.

The mandolin is the key instrument on Barroom Bards, however. This borrows from the textures of San Jorocho music which Andrews had enjoyed tuning into on Mexican radio stations.

He uses these sources in much the same way that Calexico incorporate Mariachi rhythms and it is one of the standout tracks largely due to its memorable chorus: "Barroom bards and river stones, don't shine so bright when you get 'em home".

Aside from the maritime theme, the imagery of Andrews' songs is drawn from a period living in New York when he was dividing his time between working as a chauffeur and looking after his infant son.

Andrews says : "The city felt so full of movement and ambition at a time in my life which felt decidedly (or at least relatively) not. I tried to boil it all down to this album.

This period gave birth to Small Victories, a gem of a song which serves as a coda to the evicted community of artists, poets and actors who were long-term residents in Carnegie Hall Studios above the famous New York concert hall, which was also the subject of Josef Astor's 2012 documentary,Lost Bohemia.

There is something of the eloquence of Jackson Browne in many of these songs while Flotsam and Lost Year ("a story of infidelity and voyeurism") both reminded me a little of Simon & Garfunkel's The Boxer.

In saying that, Nels Andrews certainly does have his own voice and this is an remarkable album.

Highly recommended.

Nels Andrews' website
  author: Martin Raybould

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ANDREWS, NELS - Scrimshaw