The sound of lying on your back, sun-basking, mentally drifting downstream.
Martin Aston 2011-08-12
It’s ironic that Gentle Spirit was released on the very day the London riots escalated, for had the shoplifters and arsonists been spinning this at home, they’d never have ventured outside.
As its title suggests, Jonathan Wilson’s first officially released album (due to record label shenanigans, 2007’s Frankie Ray only emerged via iTunes and a private pressing) is the sound of lying on your back, sun-basking, mentally drifting downstream somewhere between dreaming and a more illegal high. They used to call this ‘hippie music’. Stoner rock. The mellow-vibed sound of 1971, emanating from LA’s Laurel Canyon, as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young paid each other house calls and Jackson Browne was penning Take It Easy, the Eagles’ first smash. Just don’t pay any attention to the album cover, with its pyramid and palm trees. It’s a hippie connotation too far, and more contrived and much less impressive than what’s inside.
Wilson may be a new name to us but to the cognoscenti of America’s alt-roots scene he’s a mover and shaker. He has played on Jenny Lewis, Gary Louris (The Jayhawks) and Vetiver albums; has produced records for others (check out the equally Canyon-coloured quartet Dawes); and Jackson Browne was his special guest on his UK stage debut. He holds regular jam sessions attended by the above and more besides, from Wilco to The Black Crowes. It’s not hard to hear why his little black book must be bulging. Wilson specialises in vintage gear, and Gentle Spirit sounds like the product of such equipment – warm, wistful and golden-hued, coated in creamed harmonies – but also, crucially, alive.
And that is despite his backward glance going the whole hog. Song titles include Canyon in the Rain, Natural Rhapsody and Rolling Universe (which is also very Richard Ashcroft), and when Wilson transcends the CSN&Y blueprint, it’s more CSN&G – G as in Dave Gilmour and his glissando guitar. Ten-minute finale Valley of the Silver Moon echoes Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, but Gentle Spirit’s rock gene is mostly drawn from Pink Floyd’s Meddle. Bliss rules.
Yet for all the rhapsodies to nature’s bounty, and clearly why there is – to borrow another title – Magic Everywhere, there is some evidence that Wilson lives in the real world. The title of Can We Really Party Today? is self-evident, while the opening title-track unfolds on the gentlest combo of piano, acoustic guitar and Mellotron. But the observation of "The powers are killing the paupers / For some idea of God, or whatever" makes its point, and encourages us to find mankind’s inner ‘gentle’. If only the rioters had paid attention, we’d all have slept soundly.