As I’ve been listening to Nettles‘ work (and relistening; Locust Avenue is a grower), one phrase keeps impressing itself upon me: “ominous flutes.” Sometimes the adjective varies, as “violent,” “dissonant,” and “eerie” have come to mind as well. Whichever modifier you choose, it’s an odd pairing with the word “flute.” But the stark contrast of the term could be a synecdoche of the album: this is a slow, rolling, pastoral album in the vein of Songs:Ohia, but it’s also a heavily-arranged album with complex textures that border on the chaotic.
You don’t hit the flutes right away: opener “Annuals” actually has more in common with Nick Drake than Jason Molina, as the fingerpicking guitar style is much more in line with the former than the latter. Guion Pratt’s straight-forward, earnest timbre calls up the Magnolia Electric Co. singer, however. “Brando” has some choppy strum that is reminiscent of Molina; paired with the vocals, there’s a strong connection to slow-core style (even though the song is fast). And, yes, the flutes come in. They’re not as ominous as they will be, but they show up. The album unfolds: it doesn’t throw everything at you at once.
It’s “Body Inside Out” where the flutes really start to work their magic. The tune is a darker one than the first two: still pastoral in its delicate piano and roving melodic lines, but with some darkness creeping in around the corners. By the middle, the flutes, generally used for airy support, are giving me the heeby-jeebies. That tension is real. It’s the sort of thing that draws you in.
The title track most clearly takes up the slowcore motifs, spinning out a patient, pause-filled song. Again, the tension between beauty and ominousness is present throughout, drawing me in. This time it’s not flutes (they are there!), but the back-and-forth between the guitar and the silence that punctuates. By the end of the seven-minute track, the guitar, vocals, percussion and flutes all come together to create the sort of quiet roar that comes of being fully involved in a quiet piece of music.
The rest of the album follows in suit: acoustic guitar, flute, and occasional other contributing instruments deliver tunes that range from well-developed, fully-arranged pieces (“The Quarry,” “Rogue Body”) to eerie minor-key pieces (“The Knot”) to slow-burners (“Pyramid of Skulls”). Pratt’s voice is a calming guide through the landscapes he builds, and the overall results are unique and interesting. Locust Avenue is an album that requires multiple listens, but if you give it the time it asks for, it will show you treasures.