Album of the Day: Sarah Louise, “Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars”

The cover of Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars, the latest from Asheville-based fingerstyle guitarist Sarah Louise, superimposes a Hubble photograph of distant galaxies over something purely pastoral, the landing of a wood thrush on a morning glory. Condensing the intimate and the cosmic into one brief space, it illustrates Louise’s rapid evolution from folk songwriter to an avant-garde musician working with the conceptual infinite. 

Where once her playing was essentially representational and descriptive, with 12-string cascades and plaintive vocals standing in for wind and snow, Nighttime Birds attempts to give voice to the entire universe at once. Working, for the most, part from improvisations on a six-string electric in standard-tuning, Louise samples and resamples her own playing until it no longer resembles a human effort. A song like “Rime” layers insistent picking over a bed of synthesizers and overdriven guitars before inverting the entire formula, presenting the exact same pattern as a jumbled, halting sample that makes the background cacophony feel comforting.

Other manipulations are calmer, and thus much more discomfiting. “Late Night Healing Choir” pings simple, sustained notes through mountains of reverb and delay, until an alien choir surrounds Louise, whose own wordless vocals remain the only anchor to human experience. Through gradual, haunting steps, the song ascends to an almost unbearable pitch without resolution. If this is transcendence, Louise seems to tell us, we might not be ready for it.

-Robert Rubsam

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