Elkhorn - On The Whole Universe In All Directions (Cardinal Fuzz) - 1 Left

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Elkhorn - On The Whole Universe In All Directions (Cardinal Fuzz) - 1 Left


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Cardinal Fuzz, in conjunction with Centripetal Force (North America, is excited to announce the upcoming release of Elkhorn’s 'On The Whole Universe In All Directions', a release that introduces the vibraphone to Elkhorn's already unique and eclectic sound. The album is being presented in a 328 copy vinyl pressing, as well as a short run of CDs.

The first sound you hear on prolific duo Elkhorn’s latest album, On The Whole Universe In All Directions, is Jesse Sheppard’s 12-string guitar. This is followed almost immediately by a single reverberating note on the vibraphone courtesy of Elkhorn co-founder Drew Gardner, before the piece unfurls to include skittering cymbals and tumbling percussion, overdubbed by Gardner, who in Elkhorn previously provided much of the Fender Telecaster yin to Sheppard’s big and beguiling 12-string yang. The absence of Gardner’s electric guitar is the first of many surprises on this, the first album of Elkhorn material since 2018’s Lionfish to feature only the group’s two founding members, and the first to introduce both the vibraphone and Elkhorn as a single-guitar unit. The nominally back-to-basics duo approach is anything but a backward step, and one hopes, listening to the marvelous On The Whole Universe In All Directions, it is no outlier.

While the band’s recent records thrillingly augmented the core duo with various players from the first-call directory of underground music A-listers, On The Whole Universe In All Directions, recorded at Gardner’s Harlem home studio of sixteen years, distills the Elkhorn sound into something as revelatory as it is unexpected. Despite the minimal set-up, the expansive album proves to be as enchanting as anything in the group’s discography.

The album sleeve features a striking and eye-catching painting, by artist Yosuh Jones, of a Red-tailed hawk. The image of this, one of the largest North American birds, seems significant: Gardner’s studio, which overlooks a park on 147th Street, is home to many of these raptors. Red-tailed hawks are known to hunt in pairs, often guarding both sides of the same tree to close in on their prey. You could say they’re known for their teamwork.

Elkhorn has long traversed the valleys between fried cosmic psychedelia and American Primitive, particularly the latter style’s reverence to a wide range of folk and blues idioms ranging from County Records compilations to the Mississippi Sheiks. Previous Elkhorn albums have confidently reconciled these influences, splitting the difference between Popol Vuh’s devotional drift and the outer reaches of deep-cut classic rock while constantly keeping one foot in the river of the Ever-Weird America; call it Six Degrees of Uncle Dave Macon.

Each of the four extended pieces on On The Whole Universe In All Directions (the title is derived from the work of 13th century Japanese Soto Zen poet Dōgen) are named for a point on the compass, a subtle but appropriate nod to the notion of ground coverage. Though the entirely improvised set could be described in similar terms as previous Elkhorn albums—extemporaneous, loamy, and dynamic—On The Whole Universe In All Directions adds a heretofore unheard tranquility to the Elkhorn sound. This is no coincidence: the album began taking shape in the midst of an altogether different project, commissioned by Buddhist media and arts group Psychedelic Sangha for its Sounds from the Bardo series, to which Sheppard and Gardner contributed an elongated, beautiful piece of music intended for guided meditation.

Far from the anodyne sound bath connotations such a pivot point might suggest, On The Whole Universe In All Directions is captivating, full of bold, jazz-rooted playing and harmonic twists and turns. Note the disparity between the pensive, scene-setting “North” and its flipside counterpart, “East:” while the former sounds like an alap or the kind of deep sigh that either precedes or follows a catharsis, the latter gestures toward the tense and vaguely ominous, Sheppard and Gardner probing the numberless possibilities of the minor key like an army determining the best method by which to storm the enemy’s castle (or—if you prefer—like a pair of Red-tailed hawks menacingly circling a cornered tree squirrel).

The instrumentation is limited to Sheppard’s 12-string guitar and Gardner’s vibraphone and drums. One wonders why, given his musical pedigree, Gardner hasn’t flexed these percussion muscles on an Elkhorn record until now. Gardner earned his jazz bonafides in the 90s while living in San Francisco and performing and studying with luminaries like John Tchicai and living legend Wadada Leo Smith, and his feel on both vibraphone and drums is as natural and supple as that tutelage would suggest. The sound of Sheppard’s acoustic guitar—a Gibson acoustic bequeathed to him by his late friend, the American primitive guitarist Mark Fosson—is, as ever, immediately recognizable: his robust tone possesses the sort of soul cavity-filling rumble you’d more readily associate with a celestial surbahar than anything ever played within 100 yards of the kind of performance space whose bill of fare might include chai lattes.

The dialogue between Gardner’s cascading cave-echo vibraphone and pulsing drums and Sheppard’s intricate spiderwebs of steel-string guitar creates a dynamic force that is more than the sum of its parts. The near-monastic confidence required to forsake easy psychedelic signifiers for something more capacious and minimalist is a testament to both Elkhorn’s imagination and the group’s refreshing instinct to declutter. The resulting music evokes Bobby Hutcherson and Jack DeJohnette covering Led Zeppelin III, or perhaps Robbie Basho’s “Cathedral Et Fleur De Lis” if it had been recorded for ECM.

On The Whole Universe In All Directions does, however, pose a conundrum: how do you follow up a record that sounds like an apotheosis? In Elkhorn’s case, the mind boggles. Since the duo has already been known to cover such un-coverable ground as John Coltrane’s “Spiritual,” I’d love to see them give Trane’s notoriously ego-destroying “Giant Steps” a go sometime. After all, Elkhorn is perhaps one of the only groups in the American Postmodern psych-volk scene you could imagine possessing the courage—not to mention the technical skill—to tackle such an endeavor. On second thought, let’s not get greedy; On The Whole Universe In All Directions feels a lot like a pretty giant step already.

-James Toth


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