Known less as a musician and more for his role as producer (Dawes among other collaborations) as well as avatar for the (re-) burgeoning Laurel Canyon music scene in California, Jonathan Wilson aims to equalize the balance with Gentle Spirit, his second full length (and first widely-distributed) solo album. The beauty of the work is that it captures rather than contrives the tranquility implied in its title, not surprisingly with most of the musicianship supplied by Wilson himself.
On this title song, soft chords of piano and acoustic guitar introduce a breathy vocal that inexorably leads to addition of drums, softly-textured keyboard drones and equally understated harmony vocals. Noted as being recorded in ‘canyonstereo,’ the sound as produced by Wilson himself within his own studios has a breadth at least equal to its gauzy depth. If it doesn’t sound disingenuous to the ears in this era of cultural divide, chances are it will intoxicate.
The lure of escapism is real, but it collides with a readily discernible refusal to relax into insularity. “Can We Really Party Today?” begins as a predictably strummed nouveau folk tune, before the track abruptly shifts into more stark, ruminative realms of piano and cello following the statement of the song’s title. Immediately following appears a mantra in the form of a cautionary inquiry “… With all that’s going on… ?”
This somewhat over-obvious obvious self-reference suggests Wilson and his ‘gentle cast of contributing characters” (including assorted Jayhawks and Black Crowes) are looking for solace rather than seclusion. Still, the low-key luminosity of the electric guitar that rises and falls over the rhythm section of “Desert Raven” ultimately brings to mind the vacuous tones of America rather than the activism of CSN&Y. The level of detail in Wilson’s lyrics, however, allude to palpable physical sensations, recurring in “Canyon in the Rain” and “Ballad of the Pines,” that are much too vivid to allow most tracks to sound homogenized. A cursory listen, however, may or may not distinguish the difference.
Gentle Spirit moves into a somewhat more solidified realm as “Natural Rhapsody” emerges from a faultless uninterrupted segue with the preceding track. It’s the work of a studio wizard to be sure, but begs the question of how constructed are the almost indistinguishable seams that bind these baker’s dozen tracks together. A live presentation might deliver the definitive answer, but there is backbone to this music if the poetic irony of “Woe Is Me,” with its guitar and bass runs, is any indication.
Before the conclusion of the extended ten and half minute closer “Valley of the Silver Moon” recalls Neil Young & Crazy Horse, it becomes all too clear that Jonathan Wilson faces the very real challenge of transcending the very stereotypes upon which he rests his contemporary vision. Nevertheless, there’s not one iota of self-consciousness about this work, so he may very well be able to sustain this initial burst of inspiration.