Sarah Louise has taken to the same old woods with some new tools.
The change is immediately obvious. Sarah Louise’s previous work relied on her acoustic guitar playing, a fascinating divergence from American primitive roots. Music like that on previous album Deeper Woods took folk forms and strayed from that beginning, looking for something more attuned to the natural world. New album Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars startles with its reliance on electric guitar. Sarah Louise Henson plays more with the digital world and its accompanying studio to move in a new and surprising direction.
And, yet, similarities remain. Deeper Woods couldn’t have existed simply as a woman and her guitar. Henson built those songs on field recordings, vocal harmonies and more, making a record that only felt like a solo guitar album (her electric appeared there, too, but it didn’t take the spotlight). Nighttime Birds, after a few listens, makes for a natural progression. Henson’s running ability to meld earthy and cosmic sounds gets a little boost here as her improvised playing receives some noninvasive production work, enhancing the tones she finds.
Her previous drone work comes to the fore, too, not so much in an electric recreation of past work, but in a sense of patience and sustained tone. “Late Night Healing Choir” works on minimalist shifts to draw out both moonlit and therapeutic elements. Henson follows that track with “Chitin Flight,” mixing drone and Eastern influences with more skittering sounds, a beetle lost in thought as it takes off. The effect is unsettling, as her guitar scrapes the surface of calm pacing and bright tones. The song builds to something that approximates a riff without giving in to groove. Unusual for her, Henson played her guitar in standard tuning, but the second half of this track marks the rare moment where that’s apparent.
“Ancient Intelligence” offers more guitar scampers. Touches of jazz peak through this album, and her lead line here might find more similarity with free saxophone play than with her past guitar work, at least until she moves into the main body of the song. At that point, she settles into her more persistent meditative mode, without sacrificing alertness. Even “Rime,” her most ambient track, keeps watch, hinting at brighter sounds in its move toward dawn.
The title track gives the album a final statement. Though no narrative is implied, the album opened with “Daybreak” and its chirping birds, wandered through the night and returned to another day with “Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars.” That eight-minute closer brings the album to a peak, utilizing the drone, improv, and compositional restructuring that Henson has used to develop her current sound. The tonal shifts maintain a sense of wonder in the world, even while the peaceful stretches allow for a natural contentedness. Sarah Louise has taken to the same old woods with some new tools, expanding the language for her discoveries.