As social commentators and chroniclers of the times, many musicians could justly describe themselves as “cultural anthropologists”, but Jay Hammond is the real thing, a Georgetown professor when not making music. It’s perhaps no surprise that his group, a collective, not a fixed lineup, is named after a line in a Walt Whitman poem. This debut album also owes a debt to literature, to Parable of the Sower, Octavia K Butler’s dystopian novel, set in the 2020s but written in the 1990s, whose themes of corporate greed and eco-crisis resonate strongly today.
The conceptual framework informs but doesn’t overwhelm an album of delicately played modern Americana. Opener Pulsing Places starts as a simple folk song to fingerpicked guitar before mutating into a shimmering homage to nature, with Rhodes piano and pedal steel creating a pulsing, imminent atmosphere. It proves a template for the other seven pieces here. Hammond’s baritone vocals are melodically modest, but immersed in an ambient echo chamber they ring with gravitas, and the playing is slinky and skilled. The songs are oblique but suggestive – “Turn up stones in forests of your making” – and the message, like the Acorn, is one of new beginnings.