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The Graham Album Review #2199

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Nolen Sellwood: Cadence to the Flame 2

(New Folk Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/29/2024)

The way most musicians learn to develop is by imitating others. In the case of rock or pop, some are satisfied being in cover bands, thus being professional imitators. But for others, the imitation stage is a stepping stone to developing one’s own distinctive style. This week, we have the second album by a young artist whose debut release channeled a legendary singer-songwriter, but who in his new album is developing more of an original sound. His name is Nolen Sellwood, a Minnesota-based singer-songwriter whose previous album in 2022, called Otherwise, recorded in his teens, drew uncannily on the late Nick Drake, a commercially obscure but hugely influential artist, who died at a young age in 1974. That someone of Sellwood’s generation would draw upon the highly distinctive style of Nick Drake from nearly 50 years ago, I found quite notable. Sellwood captured the low wispy voice of Drake, and his acoustic guitar sound with distinctive tunings. Now Sellwood is out with Cadence to the Flame, and though his vocal resemblance to Drake is innate, the new recording is more eclectic musically, with more and different instrumentation, though it is still acoustically dominated and drums are largely absent. But there is some electric guitar in places, and more diverse elements like horns and strings. He is joined by guitarist Steven Lehto and bassist John Wright, who have their own folk-oriented group. They also served as producers and recording engineers for this album. The group comes up with some really good arrangements in the context of the mostly acoustic sound.

In a video interview, Sellwood spoke about his songwriting process, experimenting with sounds and chords, and later writing the lyrics. And that is unfortunately, the album’s weak link. The lyrics sound rather stream of consciousness, sometimes come out with non-sequiturs, and occasionally include some forced rhymes. It could be argued that it’s all poetic, but Sellwood is hardly Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake for that matter. But the appealing music, Sellwood’s personable intimate-sounding vocals more than makes up for it, and there are some instrumental segments in the songs that enhance the mood.

Opening is a track called State of Being which is a good example of how this new album has sonically moved beyond Sellwood’s debut recording, with more instrumental elements in the arrangement, including strings. It rather epitomizes the stream-of-conscious nature of many of the lyrics on the album. <<>>

Forthcome shows some of Sellwood’s Nick Drake influence in the guitar style, though again the arrangement shows some interesting eclecticism, while still sounding understated. <<>>

One of the more appealing tracks on this generally pleasant album is a piece called Candles, one of those tracks with a nice instrumental interlude. <<>>

A piece called Banjo Song features Sellwood on that instrument, with a couple of trumpets, played by Sam Hovda. <<>>

Another of the album’s highlights is Masque with a fairly wide-ranging arrangement again featuring the trumpet and Sellwood’s vocal at its best. <<>>

Sellwood is not about to let his Nick Drake influence slip on the album, as he explores other elements. When the Moon Sang is sort of classic Drake in terms of its sound, with the guitar style, the prominent acoustic bass from John Wright, and the small string arrangement, all reminiscent of Nike Drake’s first album. <<>>

There’s a short instrumental interlude called Delicata which despite being less than a minute and a half long, is another highlight of the album.

Sellwood and his producers do some experimentation with the arrangements on the track called Sailor, which gets into a kind of acoustic psychedelic interlude with the strings and some big percussion sound on this generally drum-free album. It provides another interesting twist.

Singer-songwriter Nolen Sellwood’s new second album Cadence to the Flame shows the young artist growing. His publicity biography says that he is finding more influences now that he’s in college. Though there might be varied opinions about the quality of the poetry in his lyrics, the album is musically very engaging, with his appealing low wispy vocals, his pleasingly folky and sometimes jazzy acoustic guitar lines, and the interesting almost all acoustic, and almost all drum-less instrumentation on the album. It’s a sound you can easily get lost in. The musical team of John Wright and Steven Lehto, artists in their own right, add much to the album’s sound.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A” with a warm acoustic sound, and the recording of Sellwood’s vocals conveying the intimacy of his songs.

It’s nice to see a young artist drawing on a classic sound of decades past, and imparting more of his own approach. Nolen Sellwood has made an impressive sophomore album to follow up his memorable debut.

This is George Graham.

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