Essential New Music: Elkhorn’s “Distances”

More is more on the latest longplayer by these East Coast guitar spellcasters. Elkhorn’s core combo of Drew Gardner (six-string electric guitar; New York City) and Jesse Sheppard (12-string acoustic guitar; Chadds Ford, Pa.) recruited two drummers—Ian McColm (Heart Of The Ghost, Nagual; Richmond, Va.) and Nate Scheible (Mark McGuire; Washington, D.C.)—to lend some heft and swing to their open-ended compositions.

While Gardner and Sheppard often work with extra musicians, they’ve generally done so in mostly improvisational contexts. This music feels more purposeful. On “Wilderness,” for example, all four players lock together to create a swirling, patterned effect. If one lick went astray, the whole performance could collapse, but it coheres immaculately. Sheppard handles the patterning solo on “1919,” but the light, decorative kit work of Scheible and McColm builds out from his cyclical picking to create a framework for Gardner’s skirling lead. When the two guitarists suddenly drop out, the drummers deftly transform filigree into scaffolding, then pull back to make way for another ensemble round.

Some instrumental music works associatively, prompting a sort of guided imaginary tour. Distances always feels like it’s going somewhere, but it’s not really about anything beyond the tone, tune, harmony and groove, which in aggregate are more than enough to give listeners license to listen in or lose themselves. Either way, the person playing the album wins.

—Bill Meyer