Album Review: Chuck Johnson – The Cinder Grove

[tak:til; 2021]

Akin to the music he makes, Chuck Johnson is not in a hurry. Following his 2017 breakthrough, Balsams, it seemed fair to assume that he’d move swiftly with a proper follow up. Well, you’d have been wrong. While he did put out a collaborative effort with Golden Retriever last year, it’s been a long wait – one that, blessedly, is finally over.

The Cinder Grove arrived, true to form, without fuss last week, and immediately ranks among the pedal steel master’s truest statements to date. Just in case you’re still unfamiliar with Mr. Johnson, while most think of the pedal guitar as a haymaker, he sees the opportunity it presents for meditative quiet. His music boldly ventures Americana inward, towards ambient and drone.

Where Balsams was immediate, presenting a heavenly stalled view of American life, The Cinder Grove ventures simultaneously deeper and further. There is something nearly alien in its opening moments, first piece “Raz-de-Maree” opening with sofly throbbing beeps even before Johnston’s signature and deliberate twang even enters the picture. It unfurls, ever-expanding, a mysterious ship, an unknowable vessel, returning to harbor after far too long at sea. It’s melancholy without ever giving way to despair, supremely gentle in its longing and sorrow.

“Serotiny” drifts back out to sea again, lost in a glacial whirlwind, while centrepoint “Constellation”, true to its name, departs this earth’s atmosphere entirely. It’s an impressive feat, given Johnson’s conscientious choice of limited expression, that he arrived at a style that manages to feel so unearthly and beyond our own mundane existences.

We arrive back on land with the lengthiest track here, the intimate, heartfelt “Red Branch Bell”, wherein strings add to the human drama, building a gradual crescendo before pulling away entirely, to perhaps the barest Johnson’s music has ever sounded, with hardly a blip on the horizon, until his saddened yet still genial guitar reenters the picture. It’s impressively, awe inspiringly beautiful. You feel alone and as if the whole world is by your side, all at once. Lost in the beautiful branches of The Cinder Grove, you nonetheless feel the wayward pull of some invisible ocean, like a wind sweeping through crannies of your mind you’ve scarcely dared to touch, unearthing and laying bare lost memories.

All this comes to a head on closer “The Laurel”, with Johnson’s pedal steel twisted into something at times nearly indistinguishable from more established ambient tones, which are overlaid by more traditional, if glacial, playing. You’ve emerged from The Cinder Grove, and are sure to want to return again evermore. Chuck Johnson has returned, on his own time, with the most fully realized, emotive, and unique album of his career to date. While Balsams was supremely confident, something special, The Cinder Grove reaches even further forward and inward at once, arriving on some far-flung shore that is entirely, supremely Johnson’s own.