- Nate Gusakov, Many Mountains
(Astrology Days Records, digital)
I often fantasize about pulling a Men in Black mind-erase thing on myself, specifically targeting my preconceptions regarding music. Would I still enjoy '80s new wave if I had no memory of it accompanying my youth? What would I make of acid jazz with no context? Would I still run screaming from the room if you played "Take It Easy" by the Eagles without the decades of built-up antipathy toward that band? (Probably.)
I think I'd most enjoy the process with folk music. Not because I don't like folk music — by and large, I do. But no other genre has so many preconceptions built up inside my head. When I hear the banjo kick in, my mind sees mountain roads, dilapidated shacks out in the woods, drinking moonshine by a fire, all that good stuff.
But there is so much more to the art form than clichés, as Nate Gusakov reminds us with his new EP, Many Mountains. OK, so the title won't really help break any molds. But in these five tracks of introspective, emotional and eclectic music, Gusakov offers a kaleidoscopic vision of folk fusion.
Opener "Working All Day" edges into bluegrass and country territory. Gusakov, a purveyor of the clawhammer style of banjo playing utilized by greats such as Pete Seeger, has lately incorporated in his sound an electric banjo run through a pedal board. It is a subtle but telling shift — as is the fact that the album was released by Astrology Days Records, an imprint cofounded by another forward-thinking local banjoist, Pappy Biondo.
The title track takes fusion to another level, pushing into fuzz-driven heaviness as the Lincoln-based songwriter contemplates the peaks and valleys of love. "Good lord, it hurts to climb," he sings of the metaphorical mountains that represent his lover's personal demons. Then, "Oh! It's worth the climb."
Gusakov's songs carry emotional weight. "Coming Apart" touches on the anxiety brought about by change — a timely notion, indeed. "Song for Luis" was written after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Fla.
"Dark the Night" is Gusakov's rumination on a long-ago lover. "Time flows like a river, sometimes still and sometimes churning white / I row my little boat along, through the darkness of the night," he croons in his halting baritone. The lyric is devastating in its finality.
One of Vermont's great legacy musicians, Nate Gusakov is the son of David Gusakov, a member of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and, back in the '70s, local progressive bluegrass pioneers Pine Island. Both dad (violin and viola) and brother Will Gusakov (drums) feature heavily on Many Mountains. More stellar instrumental contributions come from Colin Gunn on bass, Ron Rost on the Hammond B3 and Jim Carroll on electric guitar. Annie Nessen Voorhees and Moira Smiley offer sumptuous vocal harmonies. It's a strong collection of musicians befitting a strong collection of songs.
While not exactly trailblazing, Many Mountains features forward-looking traditional-style songs; the juxtaposition is fascinating and rewarding. Give it a listen at nategusakov.bandcamp.com.