With The Howard Hughes Suite claiming reclusivity and the pedal steel ‘the sole/soul’ sound source, a quick squizz at the mythos of the instrument helps to frame the music. The pedal steel guitar is a relatively recent technical innovation, evolving from one of the posse of yes-men responding to the gaps in a Country lyric into a musical machine that, as THHS proves, holds its own. The phrase ‘High and Lonesome’ is the title of Bill Monroe’s 1966 Decca Records compilation and evokes the wide open spaces.
Though not a pedal steel, Santo and Johnny’s keening ‘Sleepwalk’ (1959), composed after the two young men returned from a gig so buzzed they couldn’t help but stay awake, began a long association between a steel string slide and sleep. That’s also true of this collection, which sprang from lockdown insomnia, in which ‘the very absence of sleep is the invisible, guiding hand that…informed these sonic dreamscapes’. The sound of the pedal steel entered Australian contemporary music through The Triffids; “Evil” Graham Lee, (whose first pedal steel was the Sho Bud pictured on the cover of this release) said “the whole purpose of the band was to provide a sympathetic and atmospheric framework for the songs” of David McComb, the most iconic of which is the classic “Wide Open Road” (1986).
As High & Lonesome was recorded in June 2020, atmosphere took on a whole new meaning. The populace stayed home, wary of the air, while the skies took a breather from pollution. This album may have been made in isolation, but there’s nothing locked down in these evocative, layered, gentle sonic landscapes. Whether short inhalations or long exhalations, The Howard Hughes Suite present that ‘sympathetic and atmospheric framework’ without the songs.
Occasional hints of hiss and crackle are a reminder that this music’s first leap is from vibrating string to magnetic coil. A lot happens after that. The sound of the pedal steel is transformed by reverb, often reversed, and elevated towards shifting wefts of high strings and subtle white noise. This is the sound of a dawn window framing layers of clouds, illuminated by light from a place unseen.
Yet there’s suspense in this series of sunrises, apparent in “Slow Motion Pictures” despite the unvarying speed. Some songs fade, while other transmissions cut out abruptly. In the 22-minute centrepiece “Transcendental Medication,” low hums and slowly orbiting volume swells evolve from wisps of choral sounds into high yearning drones. This music makes its own weather. One wonders if the phrase ‘High and Lonesome’ may also connote a state of solitary intoxication, the changing shapes only a reflection in one’s glass.
Famed pedal steel player Daniel Lanois once said of his production technique, ‘Let’s concentrate on what is glaringly special and make something out of it’. The Howard Hughes Suite accomplishes this feat with High & Lonesome. (David Megarrity)