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Golden Retriever and Chuck Johnson are artists unified by their ability to build entire ecosystems of sound. As Golden Retriever, bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff and synthesist Matt Carlson erase the boundaries between their respective instruments using carefully selected effects and masterful intuitions as improvisors. Chuck Johnson is a guitarist lauded for his expertise in crafting a diversity of atmospheres, be it through fingerstyle acoustic or droning pedal steel. The combined powers of the trio is intoxicating. On their debut album, Rain Shadow, Golden Retriever and Chuck Johnson combine slowly shifting instrumental layers with clouds of melody and texture, punctuated by vivid emotional peaks. By compounding minimalist approaches into maximalist compositions, the trio evoke images of a vast open desert and a cloudless sky, the zen of a simple, clear horizon coupled with the power of the infinite.
Rain Shadow’s title is taken from the natural phenomenon which leaves plains and shallow land just beyond mountain ranges desolate and dry. Each piece moves with the ease and progression of a cloud formation. Looming towers of density slowly drift from one direction to another without a predictable destination. Inside the wash of ever-building layers of harmony, subtle hints of movement propel them forward. The album’s A side evokes the beauty and solace of open spaces with lush beds of pedal steel chords and deliberate melodies traded between synthesizer and bass clarinet. “Lupine” twirls baroque motifs into elastic rounds. Sielaff’s increasingly distorted winds on “Sage Thrasher” gradually guide the ensemble towards the overcast deluge of the album’s second half. With each passage the trio utilize steady, imperceptible motion akin to a desert’s wind eroding stones into new configurations.
The four longform pieces that comprise Rain Shadow were devised entirely remotely. In contrast to the album’s harmonious sound, each member of the trio tracked their performance separately from one another - Johnson from his home studio in Oakland, CA, and Sielaff and Carlson each in their Portland, OR homes. Previous Golden Retriever albums used their live performances as a reference point for arranging ideas. Rain Shadow’s collaboration instead grew from members introducing a simple idea, as if posing a musical question which the others would respond to with recordings of their musical reactions. Johnson’s extended tape loops which gently degrade with each repetition into resonant tones served as the basis for the album’s two longer pieces. The modal woodwinds of “Lupine” took shape through Sielaff’s barest playing on the album. “Creosote Ring” sprung from Carlson’s Linnstrument controlled synthesizer mimicking vocal glissandi like an estranged cousin to Johnson’s pedal steel. After compiling the musical dialogue for each piece, Golden Retriever and Chuck Johnson selected two songs each to arrange and mix. Through the trio’s meticulously detailed methods, openness as players and shared vision, this seemingly disjointed process instead gave rise to invigorating new avenues of creativity.
Rain Shadow is the work of three singular musicians as discerning as they are inventive. The dynamic and titanic pieces are made all the more potent through their deft balance of restraint and willingness to dive headfirst into the unknown. Together, Golden Retriever and Chuck Johnson harness the sound of totalities, effortlessly slipping between breathtaking musical panoramas.