Album Review: Richard Carr, Caleb Burhans & Clarice Jensen – August Dreams

[Bluebridge; 2023]

The most impressive feature of August Dreams might not ever be obvious to its listeners. Its creators – Richard Carr, Caleb Burhans, and Clarice Jensen –  each have résumés that speak for themselves: Jensen has toured with Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, and Jóhann Jóhannsson; Carr is a former sectional violinist with the Boston Philharmonic; and Burhans was a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, Ensemble Signal, and the Wordless Music Orchestra, along with working with the likes of The National. In its simplest form, August Dreams is a showcase of their skills as deft and accomplished musicians. Glacial strings weave between each other, toeing the line between ambient music and chamber orchestration. What’s most impressive though is that all of the music is entirely improvised.

For this genre of music, though, such a detail is hard to discern through listening alone. The exploratory nature of some movements might strike you for being more vivacious and lyrical than you might expect from ambient music (see the murky “On the Shoulders of Giants”), but in most instances the trio never use too many brushstrokes on the canvas. “Cesair” has the hint of an old celtic folk melody about it, but that itself seems like an entry point into a more shadowy realm. “Kindness”, with its icy piano and pizzicato melodies, turns like rigid clockwork at each given moment while “Overnight Crossing” features slowed down strings that creates an absorbing pulsating effect.

The downside of this approach is that August Dreams becomes something of a hefty slog after a while. The album can feel searching for something indistinct, if not aimless for long stretches. While it makes for good background music that occasionally might pique your attention (the smattering of drums on “Deep in the Seventh” or the bookending sonic effects on six minute “Satellite”), tracks often morph into each other and offer little uniqueness. 

“The Birch Tree” is wintry in tone, but relatively faceless and little more than a retread of opening track “Sun Ritual”, which captures a much more appealing and inviting blanket-like warmth. The trickling water-like pizzicato patterns of “Merritt Parkway” aches for more substantial material atop it than the eager but directionless piano. Tracks echo previous tracks, which makes for a uniform whole at the moments when the album slips fully into the background, but means that looking for treasured details on repeated listens feels like diminishing returns.

To the trio’s credit they make full use of the studio to bulk out the sonic variety. (It’s a shame they also didn’t make use of a photo editing software better than MS Paint, as the lousy cover art suggests.) Recorded at Dreamland Studios in New York’s Hudson Valley in August 2022, Carr, Burhans, and Jensen morph violin, viola, and cello from their original forms, creating machine like whirrs (“Satellite”) and molasses-thick deep tones (“Deep in the Seventh”). Multiple moments here have you wondering where the acoustic music ends and the electronic component begins. 

Final track “When It’s Time To Go” is the most surprising offering here. Swimming in aqua-esque colours, it features a light chattering drum track that adds an alertness to the mix. The violin is magical, fully immersed in the soundworld and exploring corners and edges. It feels entirely submerged in the moment, capturing that spark of wondrous improvisational melding. No longer music that’s content in being in the background, it reaches out to invite you in. It’s only a shame that after 50 minutes of often nondescript music it feels like too little too late.