Sonny Landreth – Elemental Journey (2012)

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Over 11 previous albums, slide virtuoso Sonny Landreth has resisted doing the one thing that was expected: The guitar record. When he finally did, you knew there would be some care put into it — and there is.

Elemental Journey, an all-original instrumental album due May 22, 2012, from his own Landfall Records, is a showcase for the facility and feeling that have made Landreth such a sympathetic sideman for the likes of John Hiatt, Dr. John, John Mayall and the late Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, among others. But it also makes a powerful argument for his ability to create shadows and light within a composition, to mix and match — and to ultimately break free, maybe once and for all, from the strictures surrounding his own individual persona as a “Louisiana” picker.

Landreth layers sounds and influences to great effect, something that allows him to play off expectations: The balmy swamp-rock of “Gaia Tribe,” his opening track here, is eventually engulfed by visceral, grease-popping pyrotechnics from guest guitarist Joe Satriani. Similarly, “Wonderide” starts out with an amiable chanky-chank zydeco vibe (very much recalling Landreth’s first gig with the legendary accordionist Clifton Chenier back in the 1970s), before settling into a classically inspired rumination.

More often, it’s difficult to discern his home state’s DNA, at all — as with the title track, which moves from a swirling cumulus of finger-picking into a muscular propulsion, then back again. Eric Johnson, with whom Landreth collaborated on “The Milky Way Home” from 2008’s From the Reach, adds a broader intricacy to “Passionaola,” which begins as a thumping blues rocker before swerving off into contemplative atmospherics. “Forgotten Story,” featuring a guest turn from steel drum master Robert Greenidge, somehow combines a loping 1970s blues-rock groove — very much in the style of Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard period — with a trickling Jamaican rhythm.

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The local Acadiana Symphony Orchestra embodies this theme of ebb and flow in microcosm, as they work sometimes in unison and other times in counterpoint on five cuts sprinkled throughout Elemental Journey. The arrangements are by Sam Broussard, himself playing against type since his day job is as guitarist with the Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. The orchestral group bursts out, right in the middle of Satriani’s solo on “Gaia Tribe,” as if flushed by a sudden noise — and from that point forward become a concurrent element of surprise in an album stuffed with them. Elemental Journey concludes with a similar chest-blossoming sense of drama, as the orchestra powers the closing “Opening Sky” all the way home.

Landreth said, going into the sessions for this album, that he wanted to fashion sonic stories without relying on lyrics — and therein lies the rub. It would have taken a lot to create something as evocative of his home state — in sounds, smells and sights — as he did on previous projects like Outward Bound and South of I-10, recorded with Allen Toussaint and Mark Knopfler. Elemental Journey doesn’t try to. Instead, the guitarist has given us something more powerful even as it became more abstract, and less bound up in his Louisiana roots — a tour de force argument for Landreth as a musical voice, independent of Spanish moss-covered cliche.

A triumph, with no words needed.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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