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Formed to accompany the short-film documentary Dutch Harbor in 1996, the Boxhead Ensemble has since grown beyond its modest origins. In addition to its leader, guitarist Michael Krassner, the group has featured a diverse cast in various incarnations over the past decade: Ken Vandermark, Jeff Parker, Will Oldham, Edith Frost and members of Wilco and the Dirty Three have all appeared under the Boxhead roster.
The group's fourth proper studio album, Nocturnes, features a somewhat different lineup than previous editions. Reducing the unit to a quartet, Krassner recruited cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, pianist Jacob Kollar and percussionist Frank Rosaly to join him on this program of lush, reflective compositions.
Billowing electric sound clouds, bittersweet acoustic strings, incidental noise and shimmering percussion wrap these melodic sketches in a gauzy film of pastoral beauty. Borrowing from folk melodies, the blues and even contemporary chamber music, the ensemble slowly unfolds an emotional tapestry of restrained splendor.
Krassner delves into various approaches as the mood suits him. Alternating bluesy electric slide with spare acoustic pointillism, he spans genres and styles. Lonberg-Holm's cello sits front and center, a key component in the quartet's sound. His rich and sinuous timbre, occasionally augmented with distortion, enriches these bittersweet melodies with subtle tension and resonance. Acting as scenic colorists in lieu of adopting support roles, Kollar's prepared piano interjections dovetail with Rosaly's laid-back, percussive fills.
Krassner's studio manipulations on Nocturnes are extensive. Tinkering with the mix, he occasionally splices the recording into abbreviated segments, creating a scintillating kaleidoscope of jittery sound fragments.
The Boxhead Ensemble resides in a stylistic no man's land between the pastoral Americana of guitarist Bill Frisell's recent projects and the majestic grandeur of the Canadian noise band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Possessing an undeniable beauty, Nocturnes updates American music traditions without straying too far from its sources.