Night falls, but the light remains. Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble’s latest foray into the spaces between acoustic guitar explorations, chamber music, and organic folk is too bright to extinguish. Written and recorded during a time of uncertainty and darkness, II is bright and urgent. McLaughlin’s compositions ride a silver thread through winding corridors where danger and distraction hang off the edge like moss.
Existential focus emerges in the acoustic fields of II, opening a place to gather. “Wheel” is an airy romp through sunkissed lavender fields, McLaughlin’s fast-picking melodies buoyed by the sheen of Joel Styzens on hammered dulcimer and propulsive exuberance of Jason Toth’s bowed upright bass. Moving away from the growing storm and toward the welcoming horizon imbues “Wheel” with an urgency to shed the most immaterial shackles surrounding us.
McLaughlin brings this same spirit “Spring” and even the wistful “Viroqua.” The interplay between his guitar and Toth’s bass playing is remarkable. Harmonic language is written in the stretched and strummed chords, fueled by a desire to move ahead. Styzens accentuates all these motifs beautifully, sometimes with subtle metallic harmonies, or as on “Blind Valley” with an all-time great lead melody that reminds me of the Legend of Zelda theme song (one of the highest compliments I can give). These three musicians are so dialed-in throughout II.
As a trio, acoustic guitar, hammered dulcimer, and upright bass perfectly combine. Between the three, the ensemble covers so much of the sonic spectrum that II is a lush, fully-realized stream of sound. McLaughlin’s prowess as a songwriter is unquestionable, with each of these nine songs existing in their own lane but coming together to build a more extraordinary story. II is joyous while still being grounded in the gravity of today, and McLaughlin is determined to find a way to tomorrow.