‘Eli Winter’ Album Review: A Visionary Young Guitarist

Eli Winter understood exactly where he belonged. Entranced by Steve Gunn’s Tiny Desk Concert and Jack Rose’s Kensington Blues as a Houston teenager, Winter once wrote to the great North Carolina psych/folk/noise label Three Lobed Recordings to inquire about working together on a record someday. Upon graduating from high school he enrolled at the University of Chicago, placing him in a city where his chosen discipline of American primitive fingerstyle guitar has intersected with other styles in stirring and fascinating ways. That city’s history — and some of the many talented players it has produced — comes to bear on Winter’s new self-titled album, his third overall and first for Three Lobed. In a sense it is the culmination of his masterplan, even as it sounds like multiple exciting futures opening up before him.

Winter’s previous full-length, 2019’s The Time To Come, was a solo showcase — just Winter and a guitar, conjuring beauty and drama from his fingers. The main textural differences came from pivots in his playing style and the occasional switch to electric guitar or 12-string acoustic. That one actually might have made more sense as a self-titled record. Eli Winter again centers on Winter’s guitar, but this time his playing is the foundation for a sprawling world of sound whipped up by a staggering cast of collaborators. The elevator pitch is that this album is our introduction to Eli Winter as a bandleader, and its six tracks suggest he might be even better in that role than as a solo virtuoso.

The core band on Eli Winter comprises Winter on guitar (usually acoustic) with Tyler Damon on drums, Sam Wagster on pedal steel, and Cameron Knowler, with whom Winter teamed on last year’s collaborative album Anticipation, on a second guitar. On opener “For A Chisos Bluebonnet” — named for a flowering lupine plant native to West Texas that Winter associates with childhood vacations — the quartet rambles gorgeously. Fingerpicked arpeggios and brisk rolling drums spin out into concentric circles while Wagster, the album’s not-so-secret weapon, soars across the landscape with finesse. The same crew kicks off side two with “Brain On Ice,” a hard-swaying, loosely spooky folk song on which the guitar and pedal steel lead lines waft upward like balletic smoke.

It’s an extremely Chicago vibe, one that will surely appeal to fans of Jim O’Rourke projects like Bad Timing and his various collaborations with the Wilco braintrust. There’s also a rustic quality to the music that pushes back against its metropolitan origins, as if Winter’s ensemble is directly channeling his youthful memories of the Lonestar State. “For A Chisos Bluebonnet” and “Brain On Ice” could be the A and B sides of a single, the sound of dawn and dusk in Winter’s world. But the album ventures into even greater variation by inviting a rotating cast of noteworthy collaborators into sonic environments that suit them. Together they achieve impressive diversity in only six tracks.

On “Davening In Threes,” it’s Winter’s fellow folk guitar rising star Yasmin Williams darting, weaving, and crosshatching with Winter and Knowler over the kind of beat Father John Misty might have bashed out for Fleet Foxes once upon a time. The song eventually bottoms out into nothing but whispery harmonics before building back up to a glittering Appalachian reel. “No Fear,” an abstract noise dirge that evolves into stormy chaos, welcomes the like-minded Ryley Walker on guitar and Jordan Reyes, who runs the experimental label American Dreams among other projects, on synthesizer. The multi-part epic “Dayenu” begins somewhere more peaceful and takes a late turn towards jazz fusion with a spotlight on jaimie branch’s joyous flugelhorn eruption. Closer “Unbecoming,” which seemingly has nothing to do with Winter’s 2020 EP of the same name, is an eight-minute wordless hymn built on droning harmonium from living legend David Grubbs, climaxing with Whitney Johnson’s breathtaking viola solo. More than once, its finale has caught me off guard and sent me flying into my feelings.

Where Winter goes from here is anyone’s guess. Peers like Walker and Daniel Bachman have been defined by prolific output and restless unpredictability; they simply have too many ideas to be contained by one mode of creation or the confines of a standard album cycle. This album suggests that Winter, too, is brimming with inspiration; both a sample platter and a cohesive work, the record reaches back towards longstanding traditions and ushers them forward into heartfelt modern permutations. In these songs you can hear history and personality and possibility — but there’s no need to fixate on Winter’s potential when he’s giving us such beautiful music right now.

Eli Winter is out 8/19 on Three Lobed.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The Mountain Goats’ Bleed Out
• Hot Chip’s Freakout/Release
• Cass McCombs’ Heartmind
• Loudon Wainwright III’s Lifetime Achievement
• Röyksopp’s Profound Mysteries II
• Russian Circles’ Gnosis
• Why Bonnie’s 90 In November
• Spielberg’s Vestli
• Triathalon’s Spin
• Oneida’s Success
• THICK’s Happy Now
• Demi Lovato’s WHERE FVCK
• Panic! At The Disco’s VIVA LAS VENGEANCE
• Silversun Pickups’ Physical Thrills
• Dan Friel’s Factoryland
• Marketa Irglova’s PURPLE
• Five Finger Death Punch’s AFTERLIFE
• Aitch’s Close To Home
• The Watkins Family Hour’s Vol. II
• Heilung’s Drift
• Terence Etc.’s Vortex
• The Soft Pink Truth’s mini-album Was It Ever Real?
• Gordi’s Inhuman INTACT
• Suzanne Vega’s 99.9 F (Close-Up Extras Version)
• Tall Dwarfs’ box set Unravelled: 1981–2002

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