A cushy, comforting folk album that has bamboozling amounts of dexterity.
Prodigies are overrated. There’s a reason why no Steve Vai album will be as popular or influential as a Ramones record. The granddaddy of modern virtuoso playing, Franz Liszt, knew this, combining his fiery playing with a soul and madness that made music born of emotion rather than sheer DNA-laced talent. Nathan Salsburg agrees: skill is servant to the music, not the other way around. But he does it in a decidedly non-Lisztian way. Third is a cushy, comforting folk album that has bamboozling amounts of dexterity.
Salsburg’s fluttering style was part of 2017’s best folk album, Joan Shelley’s self-titled charmer. With Third being a solo-guitar only affair, it becomes clear how much Salsburg’s entwining work gave warmth to Shelley’s considerable grace. The album is lovingly produced, mics placed just right, so that small twangs ring out, palm-muted chords click a bit and his cascading fingers make slight sliding noises. Put on one of those YouTube videos of “nature sounds,” close your eyes, and suddenly, Salsburg has joined you on a camping trip, his guitar serenading only you. Ovlov’s recent album Tru takes the prize for best rock guitar tone, but Third has a relaxing aura in the strings that won’t be matched this year.
There’s just something friendly about the frets here. “Planxty Davis” takes on a bit of a medieval tone, but less Gregorian chant, more peasants getting ready for Christmas mood. Though often lumped in the same category, Salsburg doesn’t sound like the bulk of American Primitivism, outside of the starry-eyed wonder of Robbie Basho. Some of these tunes could be mistaken for pop songs, or from the catalogue of New Age monks Windham Hill. Though elegant, the songs never turn stately or stiff. The lilting croon of “A Hovering” is a lovely cocoon for the ears and “Sketch from Life” is a bouncing jaunt that hides its lingering darkness with a jig.
Salsburg does let hints of melancholy infiltrate. “Ruby’s Freilach / Low Spirits” and “Walls of the World” are the album at its most somber. He ups the tempo on both and, at first, it seems like he’ll really let it all hang out. But he restrains himself. Make no mistake, it’s still fiendishly complex work (the whole album is an orthopedist’s nightmare), but Salsburg is absolute in his core value: never let the technical get in the way of the emotional. Still, his mechanical is something to be admired. The tapestry he weaves on “B.B.” is a thing of beauty, weaving between clicking hammer-ons and brief detours into minor passages without so much as a breath. “Sketch from Life” dances like it does because Salsburg sounds like at least three separate guitarists during the intro, all cascading notes that seem to fall out of thin air.
If Salsburg wanted, he could probably make an album that would make the Joe Satriani’s of the world weep in preemptive finger pain, but why bother? He might be winking at how mind-boggling hard it all is, but Guitar Hero this ain’t. It’s one of the best folk albums of 2018. I think Salsburg will happily take that instead.