Sarah Louise Henson is a stunning folk guitarist, a master of atmosphere and a boldly experimental innovator. And none of those things, as it turns out, contradict each other in any way. Over the past six years, North Carolina-based Louise has released a handful of increasingly less traditional instrumental guitar, her once Fahey-inspired American primitivist approach gradually evolving into something increasingly distant from any kind of American folk tradition. In fact, new album Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars scarcely resembles folk music at all, save for the brief moments in which her guitar actually sounds like an acoustic guitar, which happens only in flickers and flashes.
It’s best to think of Louise’s second Thrill Jockey LP and fourth overall as an ambient or progressive electronic album, albeit one whose central sonic aesthetic is crafted with acoustic instruments—instruments that are fed through many layers of effects to achieve an effect that’s otherworldly and unpredictable. In “R Mountain,” for instance, Louise balances simple, echoing plucks of guitar against a backing of warm synths. There’s not an obvious or overwhelming effort to completely transform the integrity of her chosen instrument, but the hypnotic layers all intertwine and weave together into a more stunningly consuming whole. This is “guitar” music only in that it’s played with a guitar—close your eyes and divorce yourself of context and it feels less clearly defined, more a peculiar hybrid of sounds that soothe and hypnotize in their ambiguity.
Louise’s improvisational techniques and playful approach to effects more often yields results that are pretty wild and, for that matter, mischievously fun, remarkably so for relatively subdued instrumental music. Her playing on “Ancient Intelligence,” blanketed in disorienting effects, is sprightly and strange, as much a case of powerful expression being wrought from an instrument as one in which experimentation for its own sake yields moments of subtle thrills. Yet no track is as immediately gorgeous as “Rime,” which at first doesn’t even sound like it features guitars at all. It’s a dense and mesmerizing drone, though it opens up into a series of similarly mesmerizing steel-string plucks. It’s meditative, gentle, yet it feels massive.
Sarah Louise is an artist whose career has seen her continue to refine and explore one chosen discipline, yet she’s also certainly not allowed that discipline to limit her or be hemmed in by rote limitations. Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars is an album of acoustic guitar music that hardly ever registers as such. It’s a gorgeous reimagining of both folk and ambient music, and one that never comfortably registers as either. It’s something far more interesting.