On Under Stars and Smoke, veteran noisemaker William Fowler Collins and weirdo folkie James Jackson Toth set out to create “the soundtrack to an imaginary landscape.” Now, while at first glance such an objective might seem a touch too abstract, frivolous, otherworldly, or idealistic, it’s in fact a very practical response to a very practical issue. It arose, not out of some pie-in-the-sky dream of envisioning how the Earth might or could possibly be one day, but out of the need to strike a compromise between two very distinctive artists whose respective voices are rooted in their local terrains.
First, there’s the New Mexico-based Collins, whose solo work and recent collaborative outing as Mesa Ritual is smattered with the humid ambience of mountains, deserts, canyons, and forests. Then, there’s the Kentucky-based Toth, who as Wooden Wand has used psychedelia-tinged folk to explore the bluegrasses, national parks and near-endless rivers of his home state. Both have made names for themselves in separate genres and by musicalizing separate regions of America, so the question of how to balance their respective artistic profiles on their debut collaboration raised some potentially thorny issues. Instead of choosing one aesthetic over the other, or switching from one to the other, Under Stars and Smoke reveals that they eventually decided to produce the aforementioned imaginary landscape, where “various ‘actual’ locales are thematically superimposed atop one another to suggest new, alien terrain.”
In other words, they decided to meld and fuse their geographically informed musics together, transforming “imaginary landscapes” into a instrument for reconciling disparate identities, localities, and traditions. This comes out clearly on opener “The Border,” in which you can almost hear the Earthy shimmering of Collins and the earthy wisdom of Toth merging into each other, spilling out of their own respective borders. The piece commences with a long, unwinding stretch of cloudy atmosphere before steadily gaining tension, as Toth draws out such lines as “Hear the universal vibrations” and “At the border, we threw our money in the streets.” With these lyrics, it’s as if he’s renouncing his worldly possessions and his own worldly distinctions, discarding his individuality and separateness to join Collins’s flowing, shruti-box meditations in a bid to become “Magma from the mountain/ Magma from the sewers.”
Aside from being lush, captivating, and also unsettling in its own right, this superimposing collaborative approach underlines how representations of “landscape” are very often a figure for not simply the self, but the self’s attempts to connect with and imprint itself on the rest of the world. In the all-encompassing “The Man Who Could Not Stay,” Collins’s needling samples, pulses, hisses, and whirrs connect with and imprint themselves on Toth’s chiming, trilling guitar, which dissipates via echo and reverb into the background soup Collins has layered around it. The same also applies the other way around, with Toth’s liquified voice reframing the ambient soundscape below it, modulating the deep, cardiac bass into an expression of such lilted declarations as “See me true on this unpaved road” and “Curse the want in me that overflows.”
Speaking of overflowing, this lyric is an all-but perfect ending to an album that’s fundamentally about the desire of isolated selves to flow out of their restricted limits and bounds, to relate more meaningfully with the others and the outside around them. While the cynics in us would affirm that Collins and Toft most likely remain such isolated selves outside of the studio, there’s little question that they’ve managed to relate meaningfully with each other on Under Stars and Smoke. The album successfully “superimposes” their respective locales and styles into a vision of a more unified, universalized world, and even if its relatively short running time leaves the listener wanting more, its uncanny blend of geography also leaves her feeling a little out of herself, a little bit uprooted from her particular place in space and time. While this might be disorienting for some, the album’s reminder that there’s more to the world than our own particular corners can, ultimately, only be a good thing.