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Tom James Scott, "Mine is the Heron"

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cover imageI wish I was more familiar with Tom James Scott's work, as he is an artist that has an uncanny knack for unexpectedly turning up in my life again and again.  I believe I first encountered him during Bo'Weavil's heyday and then again as an erstwhile member of Liberez, but I know him best as a semi-regular Andrew Chalk collaborator.  And—much like Chalk—Scott tends to keep a very low profile, quietly releasing his last several solo albums on his own Skire imprint.  Consequently, this latest release is a noteworthy event, as it marks his stateside debut on Students of Decay.  Given both SOD's aesthetic and Scott's past, it is no surprise that Mine is the Heron hews very close to Chalk's own understated minimalism (they do have a shared vision, after all).  Nevertheless, Scott's solo aesthetic is still quite a distinctive one, as Heron is a gorgeous and melodic suite of elegant piano miniatures and blurrily sublime meditations.  It is also a very intimate and diaristic-sounding album, as it feels like a collection of spontaneously improvised flashes of inspiration edited by someone with absolutely unerring instincts for capturing simple, fleeting moments of beauty.

Students of Decay

Notably, this album borrows its title from a poetic line in Virginia Woolf's Waves, but it feels could just as easily be Scott's response to someone asking him about his spirit animal (a theory that is certainly bolstered by the cover art).  Herons, of course, are famous for silently standing motionless in or around bodies of water as they await their prey.  I suspect Scott departs from his carnivorous ornithological inspiration in the latter regard, yet Heron definitely sounds like an album made by someone who has spent significant time quietly contemplating nature.  Herons are also known for being quite graceful, which is something that Scott seems to have internalized as well.  While the instrumentation varies a bit from song to song, the overarching aesthetic is an extremely consistent one, as Scott has crafted fourteen simple and elegant vignettes of gently rippling, meditative beauty.  In lesser hands, such a vision would almost certainly creep dangerously close to toothlessly pastoral New Age territory, but Scott proves to be eerily adept at translating the serene play of light across a gently lapping pond into something poignant, thoughtful, and dream-like.  I am especially struck by the degree of minimalism that Scott adheres to on most of these pieces, as he largely eschews additional layers of drones or chords to keep the focus squarely on his melodic themes and his nuanced textural manipulations.  Given that approach, most pieces on Heron are fairly brief, yet they all tend to feel like complete statements rather than mere promising fragments that were never given the chance to expand or evolve.  Grasping exactly when and how a simple, unadorned melody should organically end is a truly underappreciated skill and Scott has clearly mastered it.    

Scott does allow himself to expand into somewhat longform territory once, however, as "Redwoods" unfolds for nearly eight minutes as a shifting fog of bleary and smeared feedback-like tones.  If I had to guess, I would say it was composed on an electric piano, but both the attack and the actual notes being played are largely subsumed by the lazily oscillating and shimmering vapor trail that they leave in their wake.  It is a lovely piece, but most of Heron's highlights are significantly more concise and melodic.  I am tempted to say that the other pieces are less experimental as well, but it would be more accurate to say that the nature of Scott's experimentation varies significantly from piece to piece.  On "In Tangled Water," for example, delicate piano arpeggios lazily cascade with an appealingly erratic tempo as repeating single notes ring out and a soft-focus swirl of hazy ascending tones unfolds in the periphery.  Naturally, the central piano motif is the heart of the piece, but closer listening reveals an incredible degree of intricacy and nuance, as all the various parts seem to move together and intertwine like a single living entity (and I also loved how sneakily the quivering higher pitched tones slipped into the scene).  Later, on extremely brief "The Trail Curls," Scott pulls off the inversion of that feat, as its tender, unadorned piano melody leaves so much space between notes that the attack and decay become every bit as important as the notes themselves.  Elsewhere, "Hapax" revisits the languorously tumbling melodies of "In Tangled Water" on an acoustic guitar, resulting in one of the album's warmest and most rhythmically fluid pieces.  

Given the slow-moving and piano-centric aesthetic of Heron, it is very easy to forget that Scott is a classically trained guitarist, but the casual virtuosity on display in "Hapax" makes for quite an impressive reminder.  For the most part, however, Scott's technical prowess is more of a behind-the-scenes asset on this album, primarily manifesting itself in his effortlessly organic approach to rhythm.  While he certainly has a talent for crafting strong melodies, his greater gift unquestionably lies in how he makes those melodies dance, tumble, and hesitate in a way that feels completely liberated from rigid time signatures.  Aside from that, Scott exhibits a deep appreciation for the more nuanced aspects of sound and wields that sensitivity in varied and effective ways, endlessly experimenting with backwards melodies, blurring techniques, effects, decay times, and overtones.  In fact, I am legitimately amazed at what Scott is able to achieve with such a constrained palette and minimum of augmentation.  Given how understated and quietly tender these pieces are, Heron was not an album that immediately blindsided me with its brilliance, yet its unusual intimacy and spare beauty stealthily burrowed deeper and deeper into my consciousness with each fresh listen and I am now fully convinced that it is a near-perfect album.  If Scott has a stronger album than Heron lurking in his discography, I certainly have not heard it.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 06 July 2020 08:47  


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