(Self-released, CD, digital download)
We're not quite sure who holds the Vermont record for having released the most albums. But Vermont's Spencer Lewis has got to be in the running. Last fall, Lewis ushered in the 26th album of his decades-long career, the instrumental Souls. In February, he followed that up with number 27, From Now to Now. That prodigious productivity is impressive, especially given Lewis' consistent level of quality. But his latest stands out for reasons other than just bulking up his already prolific résumé.
From Now to Now marks Lewis' first album with vocals in more than 16 years. The multi-instrumentalist and composer has long been heralded for his instrumental soundscapes. That's partly why you'll find the likes of contemporary classical composers — don't call them New Age! — such as George Winston in the "Related Artists" bar on Lewis' Spotify page. But Lewis has always had an affinity for rustic folk and rock, in addition to his more ethereal pursuits. On his latest, he rolls up his shirtsleeves and indulges those baser urges.
Lewis doesn't exactly bring the same kind of heightened artistic ideology to this 10-song collection that he does to his more conceptual works. But that's presumably the point. Rather than painting in broad, impressionistic strokes, the constraints of the genre demand a more direct and concise approach. Backed by members of his 2014 side team, the Folk Rock Project, Lewis delivers exactly that, with the occasional celestial flourish.
"Every Precious Day" opens and serves as the album's thematic compass. The passage of time is a central concern throughout the record, nowhere more clearly than on this cut. Over an insistent, crunching guitar groove that winks at Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco, Lewis extols an appreciation for life while you're living it.
That's hard-earned wisdom. And it comes from an honest place. A number of the tunes here are loving odes to friends and lovers since passed, including the contemplative "Shamans," the elegiac "To a Friend (Eulogy)" and a tender farewell, "In Our Time."
Despite the heavy subject matter, Lewis mostly avoids cloying sentimentality. He writes clearly and efficiently, two adjectives that could also describe his sturdy vocal style. Lewis' baritone is pure and unadorned, brimming with reserved strength.
That quiet confidence translates to the performance of his veteran backing band. Jay Ekis' countrified guitar licks on "High Flyer" are smooth yet still twangy. Keyboardist Chuck Eller is as fluid and tasteful as ever on "Crescent Wrench" — a song that also showcases Lewis' exceptional fiddle chops.
From Now to Now might not rank with Lewis' very best albums — we're still working through the first 26. But it's a fine effort nonetheless, a moving work crafted with folk-rock heart and classical intellect.
From Now to Now by Spencer Lewis is available at CD Baby. Lewis plays on Thursday, March 2, for the first Thursday Concerts series at Shelburne Vineyard.