James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg : All Gist

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Some instrumental records speak directly to the listener, intricate and assertive. Others rely on repetition, designed for the periphery. All Gist, the second collaborative LP from folk guitarists James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg, fits into neither category. Composed almost entirely with two acoustic guitars, the record hums with early morning energy. It serves as well as an ambient album for background music, but it’s a lot more than mere texture.

On top of occupying similar stylistic niches, Elkington and Salsburg are very close outside of music. They wrote and recorded the album in two low-stakes sittings during a winter in Chicago in the kitchen of Elkington’s family home—drinking coffee, eventually switching to beer, seeing what happened. And these acoustic patchworks really do sound like coming in from the cold after a long trip to see a friend, kicking the snow off one’s boots and settling into an unrushed conversation. The chatter is a lot more hushed than on previous projects. Musically, All Gist is the simplest record either Elkington or Salsburg have made yet, together or solo. 

These tracks take their time, unafraid to use silence to imply rhythm, particularly in the six-minute “Nicest Distinction,” the album’s closest thing to an instrumental suite. “Long in the Tooth” is a twangy exhalation, “Well, Well, Cornelius” a lullaby. But even though the tempo rarely rises above a gentle pendulum swing, the guitar technique is unassailable, fingerpicked with metronomic precision and authority. When other instruments come in, like the punctuative percussion in “Death Wishes to Kill,” the piano in “All Gist Could Be Yours” the brass in “Explanation Point,” or the woodwinds in “Nicest Distinction,” you hardly even notice. It all sounds so unified and inevitable.

Still, the reined-in approach comes at a cost. Listen to All Gist in the wrong mood and it might leave you wanting to throw on some jazz—or even Ambsace, the more exciting LP Elkington and Salsburg recorded together in 2015 (which, speaking of, features a Duke Ellington cover). There’s nothing here as joyfully knotty as either artist’s recent solo releases, either—no found sound mystique à la Elkington’s Me Neither, and no guitar runs as dizzying as those on Salsburg’s Third. The album’s last track and most unlikely moment, a cover of Neneh Cherry’s dance-pop single “Buffalo Stance,” feels like a missed opportunity to close out with a little flair.
You might say that’s missing the point. Elkington and Salsburg aren’t going for theatrics here—All Gist deals in warmth, not fire. Even so, given everything these two top-tier musicians have proven capable of, there’s a disappointing sense in which it lives up to its title: a collection of beautiful summaries that leave you wanting a little more meat.

Label: Paradise of Bachelors

Year: 2024

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