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Spencer Lewis, Vermont Serenades


Published September 29, 2005 at 12:55 p.m.

(Quartz Recordings, CD)

In the right pair of hands, the acoustic guitar can produce resonant tones that impress with crispness and beauty. Green Mountain troubadour Spencer Lewis possesses such a pair of mitts. His latest release, Vermont Serenades, is an all-instrumental collection of robust musical passages, impeccably recorded, arranged and performed.

Lewis is a highly prolific musician, whose label, Quartz Recordings, is responsible for a substantial number of neo-folk releases. Commissioned by Camilla Rockwell as the soundtrack to her film Stone Rising, the music on Vermont Serenades isn't terribly weighty. In fact, it drifts by like a cool breeze.

Although Rockwell asked for solo guitar only, not every track here features naked six-string. Lewis is also a capable violinist, and he uses the instrument's mournful sustain to provide lovely accompaniment to his flatpicking. "Conversation With a Stone Wall" opens with a simple chordal arpeggio before being joined by broad violin lines that weave in and out of the arrangement like a Celtic knot. The track's gentle beauty is buffered by an unassuming nimbleness; Lewis' skill lies not just in virtuosity but in clarity.

The brief "New Love (Reprise)" chimes along with sturdy conviction, its bright guitar lines rising to a voluminous peak before suddenly receding. The instantly hum-able "November" again demonstrates Lewis' affinity for acoustic guitar and violin. With its rustic melodies, the track would make fine background music for an old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner.

"Ariana's Theme With Violins" finds the songwriter dashing through an uptempo strum session. Violin lines curl like wisps of smoke from a fireplace, while the cyclical guitar progression inspires wistful reminiscences of times past.

Unfortunately, some of Vermont Serenades comes across as a tad too new-agey; the kind of pastoral panache heard on countless Windham Hill releases. "Vermont Serenade #2," suffers from a certain degree of sameness, as does subsequent track "The Letter I Never Sent." Although both cuts are expertly played, it's tough to separate them from what's come before. These repeating motifs are probably in keeping with the overall soundtrack aesthetic. Still, at more than 20 tracks, it can be too much of a good thing.

Vermont Serenades works well as a whole, but as a collection of individual compositions it fails to make an impression. Lewis is a fine musician, but his creations are the sonic equivalent of handsomely rendered nature paintings. Regardless of his penchant for musical pleasantries, Lewis' skillful picking has resulted in an album as picturesque as autumn in New England.