Eli Winter‘s debut album, 2019’s The Time to Come, offered a glimpse of the young Chicago guitarist’s music at its purest and most starkly beautiful. Comprising mostly solo acoustic recordings of American primitivist guitar compositions, occasionally featuring a second guitar, the album is a proper document of a master musician and his instrument, delivering performances both full of emotion and dazzling technicality. It showed what Winter could do with only a bare minimum of accompaniment or overdubs, with mostly none at all, and even when left to such a simple presentation, Winter’s music proved immediately breathtaking. As much room as he left to build upon that foundation, he didn’t necessarily have to, either, each piece complete in its intricate simplicity.
Winter’s spent the past three years building on that foundation, and has since released collaborative records with the likes of Cameron Knowler and Jordan Reyes. With his self-titled album, his first for Three Lobed, he embraces a new role integrated into the fabric of a larger ensemble, drawing the spotlight away from himself as he invites a much larger cast of musicians—including Ryley Walker, David Grubbs, jaimie branch, Liz Downing, as well as prior collaborators such as Knowler and Reyes—presenting something much fuller and more exploratory than a record of solely guitar instrumentals. Winter’s spectacular playing remains at the center of the album, but there’s so much happening that it’s easy to become blissfully wrapped up in the landscapes created by the larger ensemble.
At any given moment on Eli Winter, there are any number of breathtaking details to take in, its leadoff track “For a Chisos Bluebonnet” being a case in point: beneath Winter’s own gorgeous plucks is a frenetic and energized drum performance from Tyler Damon, as well as a melancholy wash of pedal steel from Sam Wagster. Yet there are rarely any moments in which one musician dominates, each composition the result of each artist playing in harmony with another, the beauty of these songs a product of the collaboration itself rather than any one central figure. And it often leads to some remarkable moments of stylistic departure, such as on the noisier experimental rock terrain of “No Fear,” the dark western of “Brain on Ice,” or the pathway to a jazzier take on post-rock that emerges midway through “Dayenu.”
It’s curious that this, the album in which Eli Winter most explicitly takes a step back to showcase the performances of his friends and collaborators, is the one that takes his name. Yet it’s here where Winter graduates from being a great musician to being more broadly a great artist. His guitar is ever-present here, an essential part of all six compositions, but it’s in the overall vision and the atmosphere created by a bigger idea of musicians—playing off of each other’s strengths and finding strength as a larger and more flexible ensemble—that this album truly reveals itself.
Label: Three Lobed
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.