Essential New Music: Nathan Bowles Trio’s “Are Possible”

It’s been nearly six years since Nathan Bowles put out Plainly Mistaken, his last solo album, but he has not been slacking. There was a pandemic to contend with, of course. Some collaborative endeavors—a duo record with Bill MacKay, albums and concerts with the bands Pelt and Setting—kept the North Carolina-based multi-instrumentalist pretty busy. But he also spent some of that time forging his trio with drummer Rex McMurray and double bassist/guitarist Casey Toll into a band with a specific and cohesive identity.

Are Possible is the first LP credited to the Nathan Bowles Trio, but it’s not accurate to call it a debut. McMurray and Toll both played on Plainly Mistaken, ably backing Bowles as he explored a myriad of musical possibilities, from a piano-forward, dreamy interpretation of an old Julie Tippett tune to a bleary reconciliation of Silver Apples’ “Ruby” with its bluegrass origins. But if the earlier record was about all the things that Bowles could do, this one is about what the three players can all do with a set of instrumentals that resist easy categorization.

While Bowles’ banjo and mellowtone (a banjo/bouzouki hybrid) evoke a rustic vibe, his compositions don’t stay in a backwoods lane. The opening piece, “Dappled,” may start there, but a stark edit shakes loose an evolving process, which continues on “The Ternions.” Bowles layers instruments atop one another, so the tones sometimes change more than the melodies, and the push and pull between Toll’s swinging lines and McMurray’s stiffer beats drives up the tension. When they finally cut loose on “Top Button,” the cantering banjo and loping beat hew closer to motorik than folkloric conventions.

This music is more concerned with defining it’s own direction than telling you where it’s from, and on Are Possible, it’s off to a good start. [Drag City]

—Bill Meyer