Michael Nau is a good liar. In fact, he’s so good that we have no problem with his dishonesty. As difficult as it may be to believe, he, wife Whitney McGraw, and the rest of Cumberland, Maryland’s Cotton Jones aren’t from the 60’s, and their music wasn’t recorded then, either. The truth is that the former Page France members play the part so meticulously, in such a humble, unfettered way, that it could pass for a legitimate, obscure, accidental throwaway from a bygone era. Don’t believe me? Play Tall Hours in the Glowstream for your father. My guess is he has a hard time telling you who it is but thinks it’s on the tip of his tongue. And though the various influences might be, Cotton Jones is not the name bubbling under the roof of his mouth. But don’t be too hard on your pops. If we could plant this thing amidst his dusty vinyls, it’d fit in perfectly.
Like Devendra Banhart, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and countless of other 60’s nostalgic acts, Cotton Jones is infatuated with the sounds and aura of the folksy, reverb-soaked country warble of yesteryear. But where those groups really try to capture those dated vibes, usually falling a bit short and often becoming gimmicky in the process, with uncharacteristically overwrought production and halfhearted stylistic imitations, Cotton Jones just sort of does it. You can more often than not separate a television show or film shot in the 50s or 60s from one that is imitating the style. It’s the acting and general direction; there’s just something entirely characteristic about them. That pre-Brando dry delivery. But, similar to how LA Confidential wholly embodied the look, feel, and general aura of a 50’s film, Tall Hours in the Glowstream does the same for the dusty, Phil Spectorized era. Nau’s tapped into the specific delivery and stylings of the past and isn’t caught imitating. The band hits every nail on the head, encapsulating the sound, style, and feel of an era, while bringing a fresh, young perspective to the table simultaneously. There’s no catch. It sounds natural, but it also sounds fucking great. With the perfect balance of immaculate songcraft, delightfully archaic engineering, dusty production, and sheer musicianship, Tall Hours in the Glowstream might just be one of the best records of the year (no, not of 1964).
Most of the record sounds like a somewhat brighter, reverb-drenched Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning”, a dark, yet, interestingly hopeful sound, with light leaking in through every crack. On the whole, it’s a sort of perfect amalgamation of At Dawn-era My Morning Jacket, Mamas and the Papas-esque pop, Buddy Holly rock and roll, John Prine’s naÃ¯ve balladry, and Pet Sounds percussion. In no way is it contrived or annoyingly derivative, because so many of these old styles are roped in that it feels new in many ways. It swells, jangles, and pounds in a deep, dusty sea of reverberated tones and reedy harmonies.
“Sail of the Silver Morning” enters like an homage to both Buckley and Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, an unraveling waltz dipped in ominous organ, choral harmonies, tremolo-laden guitar licks, and slick bass. Nau’s ascending, nature-centric lyrics drip from his breath with a prophetic country swoon: “It comes to me like sunbeams on the water/It comes to me like water on the path/It comes to me so sweet.” As soon as Whitney McGraw makes her way in, images of Johnny and June come to mind, of Nancy and Lee. This isn’t simply imitation, it’s method acting.
With tambourines jangling at their sides, Nau and McGraw sing about the great outdoors they wander through, the hopefulness that each day brings as they open the blinds every morning. “I number the flowers at the foot of the mountain/I number the mountains I never did climb/I number the days I get up in the morning/all of those numbers are numbers of mine,” sings Nau on “Man Climbs out of Winter”, a singer and lyricist well beyond his years. His smoky, delicate, and full-bodied croon embodies every one of your favorite country and folk singers at once. But while this could pass for a stumbled upon artifact, the track’s subtle experimentation proves what makes this record so special. Nau sings surrounded by echoed pedal steel, ethereal harmonies, and striking, flourishing…marimba. But what’s more, the instrument doesn’t sound out of place. These songs capture both dated and modern sensibilities and blend them into a smooth, flowing stream of beautiful sounds pouring out of a crackling radio.
Take the one-two punch of “Song and Numbers” and “Soft Mountain Snake”. A standout among standouts, the former begins with Feels-esque acoustic strumming, then goes from zero to 60 as it blossoms into a rhythmic explosion of martial snares and blooming vocals. Its frantic time changes and waves of lush explain why it’s not just rehashing. These rhythmic flourishes pave way for the wordless, Jim James-esque moaning of “Soft Mountain Snake”, a perfect mid-record interlude that almost summarizes the record’s sound and style. Like a dusty, scratched up “5-4=Unity”, “Goethe Nayburs” later works as a jaunty, horn-laden interlude to introduce the more upbeat, organy “Dream on Columbia Street”. This is a record, not a collection of songs, and it’s a great one.
Tall Hours in the Glowstream flows and drifts like the waterway in its name. It is an album that culls its varied influences into one beautiful, reverent, yet inventive, new sound. Despite its numerous nods to various greats, it avoids being schizophrenic in the slightest. Paradoxically so, it’s refreshing to hear something that clearly takes a lot of cues from the past but doesn’t sound like it’s trying to sound like anything at all. The beauty is that this doesn’t feel like a conscious decision but more like a group of individuals so taken with folk and country’s rich history that they had to recreate it and become a part of it for themselves. It’s organic, natural, and earnest. It’s Cotton Jones, and we’re just wading in the glowstream, soaking it all in.