Jefre Cantu-Ledesma is one of the most creative guitarists alive, perhaps the preeminent abstract painter when it comes to using the instrument as a brush.
His music transcends basic understanding of what guitar music can be, transporting listeners to realms buffeted by noise and gauzy atmospherics, spaces where traditional notions of the instrument are blasted away like a sandstorm. His latest album, On The Echoing Green, aims that sense of free-form exploration in a refreshingly melodic direction. It’s a change that results in his best work yet.
Cantu-Ledesma has always been something of an electric guitar magician, wrapping his singular creations in the smoke and mirrors of blasted noise, obscuring any ideas of how the sounds are brought to life. Only in rare moments did his hands show, flitting bursts of transparency, revealing the human work behind the overwhelming effects. This time around, he closes the gap on some of that mysterious distance, bringing in collaborators and setting listeners up much closer to the space where the real magic happens.
For the first time on a solo album, he’s worked with other musicians to bring his visions to life. As he spoke about the process behind the recording, he mentioned, “I was interested in trying to bring out more overt pop elements, to let them come to the front and be present. I also have more trust now in letting things happen – trusting other people’s musicianship, and being open to people’s ideas. Eventually, things emerge.”
From this newfound trust came a set of beatific slow motion explosions, mixing the familiar hazy guitar fireworks with throbbing bass, sprinkles of synthesizer, delicate drum patterns, and in a surprising twist, angelic vocal washes from Argentinian artist Paula Garcia, aka sub-aquatic dream pop auteur Sobrenadar. As with every other element, the vocals are folded deep into the impressionistic mix, imperceptibly heightening the experience.
The effortless nature of the radical addition of vocals is emblematic of the entire approach behind On The Echoing Green. Cantu-Ledesma commenced recording without any recorded demos for reference, allowing band chemistry and intuition to become the driving forces of the album. The group of collaborators swapped rhythm and texture, blurring lengthy improvisation sessions into oblivion until recognizable songs emerged from the miasma.
The result is a profound shoegaze epic in all but name. The genre swallowed itself whole over two decades ago, but strange and fantastic outliers have been tearing out its boundaries in the meantime. In rare, deeply affecting moments scattered across the years, isolated musicians have reframed the scope of guitar music. Seeming miracles arrived with beguiling masterpieces like Endless Summer by Fennesz or swaggering rock monsters like Boris’ opus Pink. These giant steps were never comfortably labeled shoegaze by the artists or critics, for a lot of good reasons. Still, they emphasized the questing, expansive nature of the genre in a way that no slavish throwback artists could imagine.
On The Echoing Green, then, is a true anomaly in the mid-teens of the twenty-first century. It’s not only a tear in the fabric of known guitar music, it’s unabashed shoegaze album of the highest order. The nine achingly beautiful songs here comprise some of the best pure genre work ever recorded, lifting me high as the groundbreaking works I grew up with, from Ride to Slowdive to My Bloody Valentine,
I specifically mentioned three of the biggest names in shoegaze because this album is built with the same extraordinary elements, shaped with pounding, naturalistic melodies, ambition swinging for the fences. It’s an obvious instant classic. Highlights include the ten-minute single A Song Of Summer, shown above, and mid-album peak Tenderness. The latter song pushes the familiar gossamer tone of the album through an addictive pop structure, locking into the mind for an extended loop long after it ends. It feels almost as good as hearing Sometimes for the first time.
In between these aural singularities, On The Echoing Green reveals its own creation, with contextual yelps and micro-second snippets of studio banter flitting between the massive slabs of feedback-laden guitar love. These overt nods to the hardworking people behind the sound offer a subtle reminder that this album is indeed made by real-life musicians. Upon repeated listens, the tiny ruptures turn into footholds, marking the flawed human path through relentless grace.
This music is built for grand reflection, spiritual ascension, inner exploration. It drifts with purpose, slides with strength. It feels like the work of a hive-mind, swaying together in intuitive harmony. The grand arc feels like the work of a veteran unit rather than a new band under an artist who usually flies solo. As he put it himself, Cantu-Ledesma’s album, “feels like spring – things come alive, blooming, emerging from winter.”
As I listen for the fifth time today, toasting in June’s humid warmth, I have to admire his timing. On The Echoing Green is the perfect album for melting in the summer sun.
You can hear the full album streaming here:
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s previous album, A Year With 13 Moons, was one of the best albums of 2015 and this one’s looking to do the same for 2017. On The Echoing Green can be purchased directly from Mexican Summer or via the label’s Bandcamp page.