Thomas Nordlund – Divide Avenue
Twin Cities based Thomas Nordlund is set to establish himself as a new force in instrumental music circles with his debut Divide Avenue. This is an ultra stylish affair with intelligence and ambition to burn powered by a strong willed and fearless musical imagination. Nordlund’s tenure playing for artists like Sarah Morris and the Jana Nyberg Group doesn’t really prepare listeners for the cinematic journey this work takes. Nordlund’s baritone guitar playing never lacks verve or conviction and occupies multiple spaces in the mix. One can almost hear its capacity for lyricism as a substitutive for the singer not present on these recordings, but it’s far wiser to enjoy instrumentals on their own merits rather than pining away for something the artist never intended. The eight songs on this release deserve consideration on their merits. Looking past whatever mode Nordlund is working in, they remain, first and foremost, songs and not just some empty vessel for Nordlund to play guitar over.
He drives the point home in the first song, “Divide Avenue”, a complete introduction to the songwriting and playing style dominating everything. Nordlund tosses a little bit of everything into the musical mix, lead work, and big chord changes, and his backing band ably supports him throughout. Divide Avenue’s second track “Whiskey Rumination” swaggers in a way the rest of the album doesn’t and it gives the song a sort of sullen, near sundown intensity. This is a song for dimly lit late nights and smoky rooms, but Nordlund’s guitar moves through it with sure handed distinction. “Ensenada Nights” relies much more on horns than previous songs and twirls in small circles through its first half. The guitar doesn’t really fully enter until the song is half over and scorches across the rhythm section with an assortment of licks, brief melodies, and half formed progressions. “Rilke in the Rain” has a much more experimental tenor. It doesn’t abandon traditional song craft entirely, but it plays much more like a soundscape than a fully formed composition. “Wandering Daughter” plays with its tempo more than most songs on Divide Avenue and the practice is in keeping with its pronounced jazz ethos. No one song on Divide Avenue reflects his influences in that area better.
The album’s second to last song, “Iron John”, opens with mournful Nordlund guitar supported by Ben Abrahamson on second guitar. There’s an almost synthesized sound to Nordlund’s playing that gives “Iron John” a unique flavor, but the highlight comes with its seamless move into a much more keyboard driven affair. Melodies are a big part of what Nordlund’s debut does well and few places more so than on this song. “Sagatagan” is a suitably rousing ending for Divide Avenue and probably the closest that the album comes to outright guitar rock, particularly on the song’s second half.
Regardless of genre, this is one of the year’s most compelling debuts. Nordlund’s musical acumen and imagination are off the charts and it’s reflected in an eight song collection that manages to entertain, challenge, provoke, and soothe in the same package. Divide Avenue has real substantive value and broad based appeal.
9 out of 10 stars.