Chuck Johnson – Balsams

Chuck Johnson’s latest album Balsams was the first music I heard after my son was born. In its own low-key way, it was the perfect introduction to the world for a newborn baby. This is some of the most sumptuous, warmly crafted, undeniably human ambient music I’ve heard in years.

Johnson crafts his utterly time- and place-less music with steel pedal guitar, which gives the cloudlike tunes a distinctly American, pastoral vibe. It also grants the gauzy sounds a sense of tangibility that other, similarly dreamlike ambient music lacks. Instead of ethereal synth pads drifting into oblivion, we’ve got the tactile pull of guitar strings, tethering us to the world from which they came.

Every element of this music casts a resonance outside its own time, drifting and blurring the space between notes, between beginnings and endings, and between anxious little thoughts and the broad feeling of existential acceptance. In this sense, it’s an instant shortcut to deeply meditative states without ever tipping into pure abstraction. This is a quality found in many of my favorite albums, ambient or not, so it immediately drew me in.

I thrive on the liminal space between concrete action and formless mind flight. It’s where I find comfort and optimism, mining it for fuel in my day-to-day life. Balsams, beyond its surface level existence as gorgeous slow-motion music, acts as a shortcut to those precious depths.

As I sat in a darkened hospital room last week next to my sleeping fiancee, bracing for the moment our son would arrive, I pressed play on my phone and fell headfirst into the wistful somnambulance of this album. Tension eased and my thoughts drifted toward the distant future, years onward when my son was nearly a man. I watched him grow and change, speak about his own beliefs, move on from my influence and protection, and journey past the point where my own time ended. I was filled with a sense of warm acquiescence, confident that things were unfolding as they were always going to, and that this was my one and only path.

When my son was born later that night, I sat alone in stunned silence for a while. His mother was knocked out from anesthesia, so I held him for a quiet hour and embraced the world-altering moment for all that it was. Everything was different now, and there was really nothing to fear. I helped usher this new life into the world, and my new mission was to make sure that it had every chance to thrive.

The next morning, as the sun rose through the hospital windows, over rooftop puddles and pigeon formations, I pressed play on my phone again. I wanted my son to hear the sounds that cocooned my final few hours before his arrival. I wanted him to feel something gentle and dreamlike, confidently abstract, that fertile ground for blossoming thoughts. There was nothing at that moment I’d rather share with him.

Similarly, I’m here to share the music with my readers. Here’s the video for the second track on the album, Riga Black.

Sometimes I feel like comparison can do as much work as description when it comes to enigmatic music. With that aim, I feel compelled to mention the celestial drift of Harold Budd, a similarly gauzy sound crafted from the outer edges of guitar music. I’m also thinking of Brian Eno’s Apollo, a set of now-iconic ambient tunes driven by collaborator Daniel Lanois’ familiar steel pedal guitar. Songs like An Ending (Ascension) have become deeply embedded in the fabric of my own life, a fact that probably helped me become instantly enamored with Chuck Johnson’s sound. As a final comparison, I should say that the album feels like the waking morning after The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, red-tinged sun beams warming the ground as deep dreams give way to stretching, hazy memories, hot coffee, and cool breezes.

There’s nothing I can say here that will compare to a single listen to this music, so click play above and try it out yourself. So much has changed in my life over the past few months, crescendoing with the birth of my son last week, but music remains the most important of intangibles. I’ll always be urging everyone to listen closer, to experience deeper. It’s where I find myself and my future, and I hope everyone can do the same.

You can buy the album from Chuck Johnson’s website with a simple Paypal transaction.

5 thoughts on “Chuck Johnson – Balsams

  1. It was Adrian Belew who said that talking about music was like whistling about chickens.
    That said, I think you’ll find that there have been hundreds of such musical pieces made over the decades. Chuck needed to record this like he needed a hole in the head. Besides, Eno beat him to it some thirty five years earlier.

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    • If that’s what talking about music is, then what does that make commenting on someone else talking about music?

      So your complaint here is that other people have made ambient guitar music before, therefore this album has no reason to exist? And mentioning Eno shows a real depth of understanding of the genre. Hot stuff, man.

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      • Would I be correct to surmise that humour is not a natural forte of yours? Which was the Belew comment bit.

        It’s not so much a complaint, rather more like over exposure to tedium. Which is pretty much the brick wall that stultifies American music almost without exception, although there are some notable few.
        You could place Eno into a number of genres as that is what he does in spades – versatility.
        Depth of understanding? If it’s about music, I guess I’d be a rather strong candidate.
        Vini Reilly’s contribution to David Sylvian’s “Gone To Earth” from 1986, was a landmark of ambient steel guitar.
        James Blackshaw and Jim Ghedi are the most interesting players that I’ve come across in recent years, albeit not a lapsteel to be heard.

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        • I can be funny on occasion, but I’ll admit my jokey retort fell very flat, now that I’m reading it! To be honest I prefer the alternate version of that sentiment, that writing about music is “like dancing about architecture.” In fact, it was one of the things I kept in mind when starting this blog all those years ago – a reminder that this may be functionally pointless in the grand scheme, so I may as well have fun. That’s why my reviews are personal, not technical.

          Anyway, your comment read as a twofold complaint: first that my blog itself was pointless (unless you intended something else by the Belew comment – in which case you have my apologies!) and second that Johnson shouldn’t bother making ambient guitar music because Eno featured the same instrument on an ambient album decades ago – a fact I covered in the post itself, which makes me wonder if you read it in full. But like I said, maybe I’m mistaken.

          About that last part: Funny enough, Vini Reilly is my favorite guitarist of all time, I love him, I’ve got every Durutti Column album! But it sounds like you mistook him for Robert Fripp, who featured heavily on Gone to Earth (coincidentally my favorite Sylvian album) although it was BJ Cole who played the pedal steel guitar on two of the nearly twenty tracks. As far as Ghedi or Blackshaw go, I agree that they’re both doing interesting things, especially Blackshaw! I’ll admit I’m not as familiar with Ghedi but I enjoyed his album from last year. I just do not think that Balsams is comparable in style to either of them, other than using a type of guitar – it’s far closer to something like Eno’s Apollo for sure. Still, I suppose this could be chalked up to a difference of opinion and that’s fine. If you don’t dig Johnson or this specific album, that’s a-ok of course. I’m not much of a fan of his other releases, but this one sounds special to me, which is why I wrote about it of course.

          Thanks for responding, even though you painted virtually all American music (all genres?) with a single broad stroke. I’ll let that slide!

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          • Relax DJ, I wasn’t making mockery, just a comment. And coming from Glasgow, Scotland, probably encourages the natural disposition to take the piss out of everything and see it for what it really is. I’m now old enough to know that I’m hearing the same stuff for the fourth time around by yet another generation – which was really the basis for my comment about American music in general.
            And yes of course I’d read your post properly, hence why I made the Eno reference, as indeed you had and perhaps agreement with you wasn’t obvious enough.
            And perhaps it’s perfectly OK for Chuck to be doing that stuff which’ll more than likely see pay dirt through use in Hollywood soundtracks. Personally though, I can’t get past Santo & Johnny!
            But I didn’t help matters by my Freudian typo made whilst listening to the new expanded DC “The Guitar and Other Machines – I’d really meant BJ Cole. Lost count on the number of albums I have where he’s made an appearance. Glad that’s cleared that up.

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