Last year, I read Barney Hoskyns’ excellent history of the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1970s, Hotel California (thank you Paul Gallagher!) and through its pages, I ducked into a folk-rock rabbit hole that I’m not even close to wanting to move on from. In this past year the albums in the speed rack have been by CSNY (especially the “Y” but David Crosby’s godlike If I Could Only Remember My Name, in particular), the Byrd who could not fly, Gene Clark (I simply cannot get enough of his No Other masterpiece. If it was chocolate, I’d eat it until I got sick, then keep eating), Judee Sill, The Flying Burrito Brothers and the criminally overlooked Michael Nesmith.
The other thing I’ve been listening to recently is 70s Pink Floyd. I mention all this by way of trying to impart that I was quite ready to receive what Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit album has to offer.
Although Jonathan Wilson has become quite the critical darling in the UK—his debut album Gentle Spirit ranked #16 on Uncut’s year end best of list and #4 on MOJO’s—his profile is much lower in his native US. Wilson was also Uncut’s 2011 New Artist of the Year, but I haven’t even seen a review on Pitchfork yet.
I can’t imagine that it will be too much longer before Wilson’s fellow countrymen start to catch up to his prodigious talents. Wilson is “the new king of Laurel Canyon” (although he now lives and works in Eagle Rock). Prior to his almost instantaneous critical acclain in England when Gentle Spirit came out in August, Wilson was a much in-demand perfectionist music producer who records everything on analog tape (the recording studio equivalent of a master guild craftsman in these days of Pro Tools). He knew exactly how to make whatever “classic rock” sound he wanted to before this album came about (it took four years to record) and the results are familiar-sounding—and notably “authentic”—but still wholly original performances.
I’m not one to go in much for top ten lists, but if I did Gentle Spirit would certainly be in my top five albums for 2011, if not my top two (Not coincidentally, the other album, by J. Tillman (Fleet Foxes), was produced by Wilson, but it’s not out until May, so more on that later).
I’ve pushed Gentle Spirit repeatedly on all of my rock snob friends. Wilson is a musician’s musician. The real deal. Guys like David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Robbie Robertson, Elvis Costello and Graham Nash all want to buddy up to Wilson, hoping some of his magic rubs off on them. The great Roy Harper invited Wilson to perform at his 70th birthday bash in November at the Royal Festival Hall.
Did I mention that I really, really love this album?
Trying to describe music in words is like doing a sketch of a novel, but Wilson’s guitar can exhibit the inventiveness and precision of Stephen Stills or the fiery, almost architectural lines of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, often in the same song. It’s been said that his music sounds like CSNY jamming with Pink Floyd and this is, I think you’ll agree, quite an accurate description. Another way to get your head around Gentle Spirit is that it often sounds like a “Southern California” version of Radiohead.
Exhibit A, the music video for “Natural Rhapsody” directed by Michael Graham:
And here’s the one that will really slay you, “Desert Raven,” which will be forever stuck in your head before it’s even finished playing.