Elemental Journey by Sonny Landreth

I have in my hot little hands The Secret Protocols of the Elders of iTunes.

Apple has a well-deserved reputation as a secretive company. They’ve extended this paranoia to the moronic humanoids who write the music reviews on iTunes, who generally remain nameless. Because I learned this week that Apple has rules that define specific phrases that must never be spoken by the underpaid employees at the Genius Bar, it seemed to me that they must have similar protocols regarding their music reviewers. This crack detective has uncovered their nefarious process for reviewing music:

  1. You are allowed a maximum of 30 seconds to actually listen to the music you have been assigned to review.
  2. If you can’t figure out what is going on in the music, don’t worry about it. Look for clues in the liner notes to make conclusions regarding the artist’s intentions
  3. Review only that music that is a.) produced by the major labels with whom we have contracts or b.) artists in whom the major labels have expressed interest who might be commercial enough for them to sign or c.) artists who have some weight with music experts. Please have all reviews in category c.) reviewed by your manager, as we want to spend as little time as possible on these loss leaders.
  4. Screw the independents unless they fall into category c.).
  5. The tone of a review should be appropriately pompous and give the impression of deeper knowledge of music history and influences than you have. If you are in doubt about the tone you should take, consult a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

These procedures were perfectly applied to Sonny Landreth’s latest, Elemental Journey. The reviewer compared it to “70-era classic rock” because they saw Joe Satriani made an appearance on one of the tracks. Never mind that Satriani didn’t issue his first release until the 1980’s or that none of the songs on Elemental Journey bear the remotest resemblance to “70-era classic rock” or that there is no such fucking thing as “70-era classic rock” because the rock produced in the 1970’s was generally not classic in any sense of the word, being an era of experimentation and differentiation (sometimes unfortunate differentiation, but hey).

So, I’m here to set you straight. Sonny Landreth is one of the great musical artists alive and he decided to explore possibilities beyond his blues/Cajun roots, and thus we have Elemental Journey.

The album opens with the Satriani pairing, “Gaia Tribe,” a fascinating duet that’s one of the best combinations of guitar talent since the Chet Atkins/Mark Knopfler album Neck and Neck. No showboating here; these are two guys obviously enjoying the experience and focusing on the beauty of rhythmic possibility and sonic diversity that can only come from the guitar.

This is followed by the slightly more familiar-sounding feel of “For You and Forever,” though Sonny gets some tonal qualities I’ve never heard from him or anyone else. The slower “Heavy Heart Rising” builds between beautiful riffs and rhythm shifts to create a solid almost rock-orchestral piece. “Wonderide” moves from cheeky simplicity to (gasp) strings, one of the many easter-egg surprises in Elemental Journey. The strings are provided by the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra (appropriately housed in Lafayette, LA), directed by Maestro Mariusz Smolij (whose feel for the proper use of classical instruments in modern music is as close to George Martin as you’re going to get).

Austin’s Eric Johnson joins in for the next piece, “Passionola,” with its clear and lovely melody forming the basis for some exciting and well-executed variations. Johnson’s playing is simply gorgeous and a great contrast to Sonny’s magic with the slide. Next up is the gentler, soft-jazzy piece “Letting Go,” which leads us to the title track. “Elemental Journey” is a mix of sexy and soothing, busy and calming, bluesy and dreamy, moving at different speeds with ease and grace. Goddamn, Sonny sounds so fucking good here I could eat him!

Ahem.

Back to the album, “Lovely Girl” is next, a gentle tune that gets lusher with strings and cymbal crashes, reflecting the shy awe and the rough passions we feel in the presence of beauty. This leads to the “wow” track of the album, the cascade of unexpected sound we hear in “Forgotten Story,” featuring Trinidad steel drum artist Robert Greenidge. One might expect a sound collision from two different musical traditions, but these are people who love their music—-they find the common ground and make magic.

“Reckless Beauty” races off like the sound of an auctioneer yammering a million miles a minute, leading us to the string-laden closer, “Opening Sky,” which is as close to New Age as I think Sonny will ever get. It’s a wonderful piece with stillness interspersed between strings and slide, a perfect way to end the exploration.

My only complaint about Elemental Journey is personal: Sonny doesn’t sing a note on this album and I adore the sound of his voice. Still, when an artist like Sonny Landreth takes chances, you have to respect that—-and when it turns out as beautifully as Elemental Journey, you have to just keep your petty little preferences to yourself.

 

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