Nir Felder – Golden Age – Okeh 888837962926, 61:25 [Distr. by Sony] [1/21/14] ****:
(Nir Felder – guitars; Aaron Parks – keyboards; Matt Penman – bass; Nate Smith – drums)
Like Pat Metheny and Joe Satriani, Nir Felder is a storyteller first, a guitar player second. He has the rare gift wherein his melodies and infrequent solos are instantly catchy and memorable. Even at first hearing you feel you already know his music, that you can somehow complete a song’s melody not long after it begins. And though there is a theme to Golden Age, with allusions to serious historical moments expressed by spoken word samples of Malcolm X, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Richard Nixon and Lou Gehrig, among others, the concept (are we in a new golden age?) ultimately falls a bit flat next to the album’s kinetic rhythms and rich bittersweet melodies.
Throughout Golden Age, Felder’s guitar tone is middle-range and pleasant, and his guitars often sound like they could be electric or acoustic. He taps a vein of Americana that is reflective, but also forward thinking. And while he is definitely a jazz guitarist – Metheny, John Scofield, and frequent Steely Dan sideman Wayne Krantz loom large in his style – you get the impression that Felder could play in a jug band and the message, the music’s melodic content would be the same. He’s a pop stylist with jazz technique, essentially.
Golden Age opens with what else – all purpose guitar strumming a la Metheny’s New Chautauqua, lifted and set fire by the spacious drumming of Dave Holland’s Nate Smith, his hyper-vescent, combustible rhythms supplying the forward motion and underlying flow that makes Felder’s music spark. Opener “Lights” pays tribute to Wes Montgomery with a subtle chordal melody spinning over an elastic funk groove. Think an alt rock version of George Benson’s “Breezin’” set aloft and flying over the Andes. Beneath the song’s frayed strumming, samples of Richard Nixon announcing “I want to tell you” morph into Malcolm X seemingly replying “our cause is just.” “It is the duty of leaders to lead,” Malcolm X continues throughout the strum-heavy track, infused with samples of President Johnson, Lou Gehrig and others. The song does make you wonder, are these men American heroes or American tragedies? A Bruce Hornsby-like piano figure fittingly adorns the song as it vamps out. “Bandit’s” gentle melody, as memorable as “Ode to Billie Joe” or a quieter Radiohead song, floats and vamps (there’s a lot of floating, vamping and high-flying on Golden Age) before bucking into an anthemic clutch of chorded guitar accents that effectively create the song’s hook. Swaying between rock styled urgency and gentle, Emily Remler like flow and ethereal swing, “Bandits” soon gives way to strings, and what sounds like seagulls. Cinematic? You bet. It’s Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life meets Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is. Other highlights along Felder’s amber-waves-of-grain journey include the John Scofieldish funk and complexity of “Ernest/Protector,” the Allan Holdsworth inspired fusion of “Sketch” (with more Malcolm X samples), the pretty melody, angular chords and scattershot rhythm of “Lover,” and closer, “Before the Tsars,” a lush piano-driven track that is as eerie as it is ghostly.
Golden Age fits a slim niche in the Americana catalog. Combining jazz instrumentation with sweeping melodies and a continuous dose of political commentary, Golden Age becomes equal parts easy-listening mantra, protest song shout-out, and jazz guitar shootout. A smart lad, Nir Felder means to be all things to all listeners and pulls it off, handily.
TrackList: Lights, Bandits, Ernest/Protector, Sketch, Code, Memorial, Lover, Bandits II, Slower Machinery, Before the Tsars