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Golden Retriever & Chuck Johnson, "Rain Shadow"

cover imageI can think of few other projects that have elicited such a wide and continually shifting range of opinions from me as Portland's Golden Retriever, as Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson sometimes seem like immensely talented and idiosyncratic visionaries and sometimes seem like dedicated revivalists of my least favorite strains of kosmische musik. This new collaboration with Oakland-based pedal steel master Chuck Johnson, however, is unambiguously a marriage made in heaven, as Johnson's warm and soulful ambient shimmer provides the perfect context for Sielaff and Carlson to work their magic. At its best, Rain Shadow feels a bit like a long-lost Brian Eno/Daniel Lanois collaboration, but one that has been updated with sharper edges and a more sophisticated approach to harmony (and, of course, a heavily processed clarinet). This is very likely the strongest album that either Johnson or Golden Retriever have ever recorded.

Thrill Jockey

Rain Shadow takes its name from "the natural phenomenon which leaves plains and shallow land just beyond mountain ranges desolate and dry" and I suspect that title was chosen by Chuck Johnson, as both it and the album's general tone are strongly reminiscent of his earthy, meditative work as half of Saariselka.As such, it is safe to say that this collaboration draws Golden Retriever further from their comfort zone than it does Johnson, though trying to accurately delineate Sielaff and Carlson’s evolving aesthetic would be a challenging task for anyone.Still, one of the hallmarks of the duo's artistry has long been an emphasis on live performance and Rain Shadow makes a significant departure from that working method (or any conventional working method, for that matter).The album was essentially composed remotely, as all three artists worked in isolation and built these four pieces up from sketchlike foundations.Or, as the album description puts it: the album "grew from members introducing a simple idea, as if posing a musical question which the others would respond to with recordings of their musical reactions.").In essence, this approach split Golden Retriever into two solo artists rather than a single entity.In addition to that unusual compositional approach, both Johnson and Golden Retriever each selected two pieces for final control over the finished mix and arrangement.I would have expected such an approach to result in two very different halves of the album, but I cannot discern any significant variation in the overarching aesthetic of these four pieces, as each member of the trio seemed to be very much on the same egoless and sublime wavelength. 

The album seems like it was definitely edited and sequenced with the vinyl format in mind, as it is made up of alternately long and short pieces that add up to two 20-minute sides.Unsurprisingly, it is the longer pieces that feel like Rain Shadow's raison d'être, but the shorter pieces are not at all lacking in inspiration or quality.The first long piece, "Empty Quarter," is initially a dreamlike haze of warm synths and languorously fluid pedal steel glissandi.Gradually, however, it amasses more textural and harmonic depth, as Carlson's synth lazily twinkles and sputters around a quietly soulful and smoldering bass clarinet solo from Sielaff.It is an achingly lovely and slow-burning piece in general, yet it becomes even more beautiful with deeper listening, as the way the various motifs organically intertwine with one another is downright mesmerizing.Remarkably, however, the threesome manage to somehow top that achievement later on the album with "Sage Thrasher," which is a stone-cold masterpiece.Much like its illustrious predecessor, it too begins as a heavenly pool of slow-moving ambient bliss.It soon blossoms into a rich passage of ghostly, swooning pedal steel work from Johnson, but my favorite part is when something resembling a tightly harmonized mass guitar solo rises up from the mists.Given Golden Retriever's promiscuous use of effects pedals, it is hard to exactly say who is responsible for that brilliant and sublime performance, but whoever it was single-handedly elevated an already great piece into something absolutely transcendent.That said, everything else about "Sage Thrasher" is rapturously beautiful as well, as its various layers all unfold like billowing, slow-motion tendrils of smoke en route to an unexpectedly dense and roaring crescendo.

The shorter two pieces suffer only from their lesser scale and scope, as Johnson and Golden Retriever seem to work best when they can stretch out and allow a piece to evolve at a natural, unhurried pace.That said, both "Lupine" and "Creosote Ring" manage to explore some very appealing places that that the longer pieces did not reach.In "Lupine," for example, two tenderly bittersweet clarinet lines intertwine over an elegiac structure of descending bass tones.Then, on "Creosote Ring," the trio creep quite close to the heavy synth drones of an Abul Mogard epic, yet enhance the gravitas of that foundation with some roiling guitar shimmer and yet another killer clarinet solo (apparently I suddenly love clarinets now).That amounts to nothing less than four great songs in a row, each with their own distinct character.As much as I have been impressed by both Johnson and Golden Retriever in the past, I was legitimately blindsided by the greatness of this album, as these three artists have a truly amazing natural chemistry and seem to have absolutely unerring shared instincts about everything from pacing to harmony to density.Moreover, every single piece starts off good and ultimately winds up somewhere exponentially better, all while nimbly avoiding predictability, indulgence, or shallow prettiness.In fact, this album only seems more and more inspired and masterful every single time I listen to it.Rain Shadow is an instant classic.

Samples can be be found here.

(Note: The digital version of Rain Shadow has a May 15th release date.The physical album is due out June 19th.)