I can’t shake the feeling that this is, at least in part, a piss-take. Cowboy Sadness is a hilariously on-the-nose name for an ambient country project, and an implicit skewering of a genre that sometimes gets a little cheerless in its high lonesome drift. Titling their debut Selected Jambient Works, Vol. 1 makes it, somehow, even funnier. And naming tracks “First Rodeo” and “Second Rodeo” seems like even more winking, since this is hardly the first rodeo (or second, for that matter) for the New York indie lifers that make up the outfit. Cowboy Sadness is comprised of guitarist Peter Silberman of The Antlers, drummer Nicholas Principe of Port St. Willow, and keyboardist David Moore of Bing & Ruth (and his recent, well-received collaboration with Steve Gunn). Two off-kilter indie rock troubadours and one Terry Riley-esque minimalist do not seem like an obvious recipe for an album of high desert furniture music. But all kidding aside, they’ve managed to make a gorgeous, unpretentious record of windswept sonic vistas.
The tremulous chords of the opener “Willow” suggest another country ambient collection of color-changing swells. But then something happens about a minute into the second track, “Billings, MT”: Principe’s brushed drums start to shuffle. Then come the amethyst tones of Moore’s Fender Rhodes. Once the bass-like prowl of Silberman’s baritone guitar appears, you realize something: Cowboy Sadness know how to groove. This is what sets Selected Jambient Works apart. In their irresistible simmer, Cowboy Sadness often sounds like they are paying homage to the slow-motion hippie funk of the late great Brightblack Morning Light. There are drone exercises, to be sure. “Full Mammoth” bellows and breathes like the cavernous cistern experiments of Stuart Dempster. But, before long, Cowboy Sadness goes back to cooking. The aforementioned “First Rodeo” is another low-key smoker, guitar and keyboards coalescing into a warm, sunny groove that feels like it could go on forever. Weightless passages, like the dreamy “Agave” are rewarding; but the band are never as good as when Principe is back on the kit. Even the gaunt, anxious percussion on a track like “Range” give the deep listening drones of guitar and organ an irresistible restlessness. Some of these tracks sound more like roughed-out sketches than fully realized landscapes, perhaps befitting their origins in low-stakes jam sessions among close friends. But the trio has clearly lit upon something potentially more enduring.
Big sky resonances are a dime a dozen in this corner of cosmic American music, but sumptuous grooves are a good deal harder to find. I pledge to do my best with whatever time and authority the good lord has granted me to make sure the term “jambient” never becomes a thing. But if it does, let’s hope it means more of the latter. | b sirota