Nels Andrews
Album: Scrimshaw
Label: Ignatious
Tracks: 9

I have to make an admission; before I received this album I was not familiar with the music of Nels Andrews. I had not heard his previous two albums "Sunday Shoes" [2005] and 2008's "Off Track Betting" [even though it was awarded 4 stars in Uncut Magazine].

It's not as though Nels is exactly unknown. He has won several prestigious songwriting awards and has worked with such luminaries as A J Roach and Ani Di Franco. He has been played on Radio 2 by Bob Harris and is, I believe, very popular in the Netherlands [there's a video of him on Dutch tv on Youtube].In fact, his latest album went straight in at No.1 in the Euro- Americana chart. Obviously, I have been missing something.

And so to his new album "Scrimshaw". The first thing that struck me was the title. What does it mean? The word sounded familiar but I could not place it. It turns out that scrimshaw is the decorative art of engraving on whalebone or whale teeth or on the tusks of walruses. It was a leisure activity for whalers to help pass away their long hours at sea which started in the 19th century [well, there couldn't have been much else to do, could there?]. The best scrimshaw has incredible detail in miniature works of art, which nicely describes the songs on this album. Each of the nine songs here is a short story.

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico [now resident in New York], Nels' songwriting draws on years of hard living as a construction worker and is packed full of evocative imagery. Not only is the songwriting superb but the songs are set in atmospheric soundscapes by producer Todd Sickafoose. The arrangements are sparse and eerie with splashes of colour- washes of pedal steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, flute and ethereal strings. This is album that grows on you with each hearing.

Every song is a gem. "Barroom Bards" has a lovely light, Mexican feel to it, but in the background lurks a fuzzy electric guitar. "Small Victories" features atmospheric pedal steel together with vocals that are not a million miles away from Jackson Browne. "Flotsam" is a lovely song with mandolin and eerie electric guitar, which contains some great lines like "There is no shadow in the house of the sun " and " She's coiled like a library cat on a fence". "Houdini" with its sparse backing and fuzzy electric guitar creates an eerie atmosphere - "When Houdini slips from your sheets she won't say goodbye".

The most "folky" track is "Three Hermits", which sounds like an old traditional ballad and features some fine banjo picking. This is immediately contrasted by the following "The Lost Year" with its experimental soundscape of crashing cymbals, militaristic drumming and string-laden coda. Masterful stuff.

The mood changes dramatically for the final track "Wisteria" which is a tender love song, which is sung as a duet and which features some lovely flute from Nuala Kennedy, which add a celtic flavour to the song, which fades out into some Astral Weeks-inspired strings, complete with the sound of bees.

If, as I was, you are not familiar with the music of Nels Andrews, you owe it to yourself to remedy the situation, as this is a superb album of thoughtful, intelligent songs set in inventive musical soundscapes. Highly recommended.

Peter Cowley