With Saint Francis River Basin, we welcome another new label to the fold: Manchester’s North Country Primitive, who opened its doors with the colorful compilation New Dimensions in Fingerstyle Volume One this February. That set featured tracks from Grass Tops Recording and Littlefield Editions, so we can safely assume that they’re all in this together. The warm intonations of American Primitive can melt many a heart. The label’s first artist album is also a compilation of sorts, gathering various tracks sprinkled about Minnesotan Marcus Eads‘ recent discography, up to To See An Elephant, also released in February. Eads is more than a fingerstyle guitarist; he also plays banjo and releases field recordings. But this set is a fine introduction to his work, and it’s easy to branch out from here.
The most effective tracks shine as bright as the Minnesota sun. One of these is the opener, “Cut for Sign”, which revolves around simple themes yet draws the listener in like a crow to a glass bauble. Eads is clearly having fun here, while setting the stage for what is to come. Originally the seventh track on a ten-track set, it’s interesting to see its repositioning here. After this, the set grows more pensive, although it never loses its penchant for playfulness. “Blue Hill” is as placid as the album’s cover photograph, a nod to Windham Hill, while the notes of the title track swarm slowly around a plucked beat before whirling into a near-frenzy at the end. “John Newton’s Conversation”, (originally titled “John Newton’s Conversion”) may be one of thousands to incorporate “Amazing Grace”, but the artist makes it his own through injected and extended phrasing. His bold rendition adds something new to the equation, something we haven’t heard since Josh Wilson’s layered effort nearly a decade ago.
The second half highlights include “Plat Trap Ramble”, which returns to the happy inflections of the opener and contains a surprising switch in the third minute; the 57-second banjo interlude “Onamia” (we want more!) and the rocking “On the Shoot”. But of course it’s easy to produce an album of such quality when one has so many tracks to choose from. The real twist arrives when one does get hungry for more and visits Eads’ Bandcamp page. The EPs that follow To See An Elephant are not at all what one expects; Canyons is “performed on a 1930’s Selmer b-flat clarinet” and straddles the genres of drone and jazz; Morning is a lovely 22-minute field recording that honors its title. The latter EP takes up where the last two tracks of To See An Elephant end, but may be a surprise to those approaching from North Country Primitive. Therein lies the rub: there’s nothing primitive about the artist or label; the tag fits a style of music, but the minds behind it are incredibly complex. (Richard Allen)