- Bow Thayer, The Book of Moss
(Elbop Music, digital)
Every Seven Days review of a Bow Thayer album has noted a particular quality: This is not an artist who stays on the trail. To walk with Thayer, even over the course of a single record, is to take a meandering path through an open meadow, dip down into craggy canyons and invent new landscapes. This is a man who, when constrained by the limitations of the guitar and the banjo, designed his own hybrid instrument, the Bojotar. A Vermonter for 25 years, he has clearly established his inventiveness and disregard for the conventions of genre.
Still, Thayer's latest release, The Book of Moss, started in an unusual place, even for him: The songs began with their bass lines. Thayer's friend and bandmate Alex Abraham recorded them before he died by suicide in 2018. For a while, grief made returning to the tracks they'd recorded impossible, Thayer wrote in the album's liner notes. But when he did, he realized that he could finish the record. "It seemed like a perfect coping mechanism and a necessary testament to a lost friend," Thayer wrote.
Perhaps it is this bass-up approach that makes The Book of Moss such an engaging listen, or perhaps it's Thayer's continued commitment to experimentation, sprinkling in a harmonica here and a fiddle there, never quite locking in on a singular sonic thread. It's well mixed by Justin Guip, and while I wouldn't describe The Book of Moss as a relaxing listening experience, it certainly made me feel the power of Thayer's emotions and vision.
The first song, "Babel," is an introduction to these glorious idiosyncrasies. It opens with eerie, echoing notes, then plunky bass lines and hand drumming with a distinctive African influence join in. The tension builds, and, 50 seconds in, Thayer's voice lands like a hammer, singing of "mercury rising." The intensity never lets up: "All that was spoken is shattered and broken, forgotten as it fell," he sings. "Now our spirits are screaming, trying to find meaning of a story to tell." Lest readers think that the track is all gloom and doom, the closing lyrics are about rebuilding the Tower of Babel — a powerful symbol in a time when the world feels fractured.
Thayer's vocals on the first four tracks sound like that of a classic grizzled rocker in the corner of the dive bar, or maybe Bryan Adams after half a dozen cigarettes. He lightens up the growl and commits a bit more to final consonants in the later half of the album, which I personally prefer. My favorite vocal performance comes in his clear lilt on "She Keeps It to Herself." That said, there's something undeniably strange and wonderful about the contrast between Thayer's gravelly delivery and the album's dense, thoughtfully arranged instrumentation. His voice is a grounding wire; his picking is up in the clouds.
The Book of Moss is available at bowthayer.bandcamp.com.