Ryan Sambol, the ex-Strange Boys singer-songwriter, discovers the joy of scaling back, pursuing understated lonesome cabin folk missives for quarantine times.
The Texan musician and poet Ryan Sambol first came to prominence as leader of rootsy Austin garage-rock combo The Strange Boys. Since the demise in 2012 of the band he’d formed as a teen, his muse has followed him to stints with Living Grateful, The Interstate Group and then a pair of solo recordings, 2015’s Now Ritual and last year’s Rail Sing.
Employing an austere, bone-dry palette of hollow, plucked acoustic guitar and trickles of piano, his latest offering, Gestalt, is his simplest and most disarming yet; a melancholy and untainted collection of sparse troubadour country-folk songs oscillating around fleeting memories and impressions of mortality and love.
On the ruminative, twenty-minute-long Gestalt, Sambol spins warmly poetic marvels from the textures of the everyday. The startling, unguarded intimacy of his trilling warble, reminiscent of both a young Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, helps shape the material more like Pandemic diary entries than conventional pop songs. The once yelping and yowling purveyor of fag butt-laced romp-a-longs gives an impeccable performance of forlorn hillbilly charm that supplies generous balm and propels his highly emotive soundscape into peculiar spaces.
Sambol’s poetry background lends itself to darkly cryptic imagery. On the quietly brilliant opener, You’re Still Lovable To Someone, he addresses an ex-lover with the menacing admission, “If only that room had had a window/Maybe things would have stayed more peaceful”. The song begins like a bare-bones version of Lambchop’s In Care of 8675309 and rolls itself around a droning string melody that threatens to collapse but ends on a note of comfort and solace.
Elsewhere, the singer announces with a whisper, “What a mess I want to make with you,” on the lolloping strum of Big Text, which lends itself to all manner of possibilities, not all of them carnal. There’s domestic succour on Round the House, where he discloses feeling “humbled, full and safe” after a meal, whilst he intimates a ream of novelistic detail in the Leonard Cohen-like Just Like Golden Hours: “We met in the comments/Of one of our favourite singer’s songs”. A desolate wail of pedal steel animates the sputtering soul-searching of Why Am I Afraid To Pray.
The partnership between Sambol’s unvarnished, scraggly and folky guitar and his hangdog wisp elicits moments of shattering beauty and inhabit cathartic pockets of lucidity, akin to overhearing pearls from a neighbour’s private conversation. Gestalt is miniature in form but contains a multitude of intuitive, starry-eyed and wistfully melodic gems that flirt with tension, drone and front-porch cadences constructed in the heat of the moment. It will be interesting to see how the resplendent Sambol operates a larger canvas.