Gregory Alan Isakov is one talented fellow. He writes bruising songs, sings in a weathered voice and has a knack for writing a melody that stays with you for a long time. He also has heart, a deep lying sense of community and a keen eye for doing the right thing. Back in 2012, when his song ‘Big Black Car;, from the epic This Empty Northern Hemisphere was used in an advert for a fast food chain, he donated all proceeds to non-profit organisations that helped further sustainable farming.
Despite being born in Johannesburg, Isakov was raised in Philadelphia and now calls Colorado home. That idea of wandering, leant into the songwriting that is featured in Appaloosa Bones. What started off as a small lo-fi album expanded as he travelled throughout the states, travelling in his van whilst playing gigs. “These wide open landscape had this quietness and expansive deepness that grounded me and evoked a lot of the curiosities I was drawn to when I started writing songs”
Lo-fi this isn’t. None of the songs have sparseness. The instrumentation on a song like ‘Before the Sun’ comes closest to the original idea he had. Many of the tracks are deep-filled with the only minimisation coming in his lyrics. Direct and to the point, they lack any fat. They also allow a counterpoint to the melodies, leaving the listener in no question to what each song is about.
Danny Black provides the ukulele instrumentation throughout the album, no more pointedly on the opening track ‘The Fall’ which, once you push past the plaintive piano which opens the album, welcomes you into the world of a trapeze artist from the nineteenth century with it’s lyrics of “the trembling wire” but, if you dig deeper, the message is a more timeless one. “We all break a little when we fall/and everybody keeps saying “get up”.
The footsteps that greet us at the beginning of ‘Terlingua’ is the most perfect representation of how Isakov presents himself and his songwriting. Nothing is rushed, everything takes the right amount of time and, by allowing the songs to breathe and take their own shape, they are so much stronger for this approach. Best of all may be ‘Sweet Heat Lightning’ where, aided by the backing vocals of Aoife O’Donovan and Bonnie May Paine, Isakov sings of mindless travelling – “You drive, let’s see where this ends/Let’s see the wheels wear out” and it also features some of the best imagery that Isakov has committed to record.
Isakov also runs a farm, and the tending of his sheep, was the starting point for ‘Watchman’, though the song stretches out into a treatise on searching. His farm provides produce for the local community, including restaurants and food banks. Which brings us full circle to talking about Isakov as a man with a keen eye for doing the right thing. He does the right thing so often on Appaloosa Bones, as he has done so often throughout his 20 year recording career, that it would be easy to take it for granted by now.
Closing with ‘Feed Your Horses’, just the second track that echoes what he originally set out to achieve, he brings the listener full circle too. As the narrator allows his lover to work out her problems while he stays at home, we know it’s likely to end in heartbreak. But it’s a beautiful song, spare in melody and rich in tone, and makes the listener reach for the play button again. Why? Just so we can immersed in Isakov’s beautiful landscapes once again.