Thomas Nordlund’s time accompanying respected performers like Sarah Morris and the Jana Nyberg Group and his extensive musical education has prepared him for this moment. The release of his debut solo album, Divide Avenue, amply demonstrates his sharp musical decision making and command of the instrument. Each of the album’s eight songs is an evocative soundscape powered by a vivid imagination skilled enough to translate his thoughts into melodies, chords, scales, and sustained notes. The Twin Cities based artist remains admirably obliviously to trends – a largely instrumental album, in this age, truly deserves to be called a labor of love. You hear that listening to Divide Avenue.
The title track opens the release and places it on firm melodic footing. Nordlund’s electric baritone guitar has a particularly vocal quality on the song’s succinct phrasing and benefits from steady acoustic rhythm guitar underpinning it. Lars-Erik Larson’s drumming shows great restraint, so it’s quite noticeable whenever he tweaks the tempo. The song has a decidedly cinematic slant and Nordlund invokes starkly beautiful landscapes by positioning silence as a counterpoint to his playing. “Whiskey Rumination” is, as its title implies, a meditative number with a relaxed, deliberate tempo. The pace picks up a little during the song’s midway point before settling back into its initial groove, but Nordlund’s eloquence never wavers. The melodies are taciturn, in some ways, and strike a melancholy chord in listeners, but there isn’t a wasted note.
Kevin Gastonguay’s Fender Rhodes opens “Whispering Son” before Nordlund joins him. The live nature of the recording is never more apparent, at this point, than here. The synthesis of keyboards, guitar, horns, and traditional instrumentation like bass and drums sounds spontaneously, impromptu, and when Nordlund begins trading lines with Gastonguay, it’s easy to hear how they are so clearly feeding off of and into one another. It pushes Nordlund’s lead work further than before. “Ensendada Nights” has a light Latin feel, but its deeper musical DNA is definitely jazzier. This seems like a song holding itself back, eager to burst out in a bigger way, with its occasional flares of percussion alongside well-timed lead guitar runs.
“Rilke in the Rain” name checks the famous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and does a convincing job of approximating his depth, thoughtfulness, and even despair. The track is slow-moving and relies heavily, as many Nordlund songs do, on the space he leaves for others instruments to breathe. The gradual emergence of piano and brass in the song’s second half lightens its emotional tenor some, but this is a song streaked with shadows. It might be fair to surmise Nordlund, despite his status as a performing artist, is much more introspective than we might suspect. This is very insular music, without exception, but nonetheless still capable reaching out to listeners. “Wandering Daughter” is a mid-tempo jaunt with a fluid rhythm section and crackling guitar. “Sagatagan” concludes the album on an appropriately minor key note but continues following the same melodic template that’s informed the release as a whole.
This is an impressive release by any measure. Thomas Nordlund is musician as magician, a playing talent capable of fleshing out entire landscapes with only a few notes. There is something almost painterly about this album, even literary. Divide Avenue is a moving work of musical poetry.
9 out of 10 stars.