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Nolen Sellwood: Otherwise
(New Folk Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/10/2022)
Throughout history music has been full of prodigies, going back to Mozart, musicians who showed extraordinary musical ability and maturity at an early age. The classical world, jazz, and bluegrass have seen their share of youthful performers who have been virtuosic instrumentalists, often emerging as early teens.
This week we have the debut album of a teenage artist who is not so much a prodigy on his instrument, but rather one who captures a distinctive style of more than 50 years ago. It’s Nolen Sellwood, who has released his debut album called Otherwise.
From the Minneapolis area, Nolen Sellwood was inspired to take up guitar at age 15 by a high-school art teacher, and by the following year, he was writing his own songs. But rather than gravitating into contemporary styles, alternative rock, or hip-hop, Sellwood found early inspiration from the jazzy songs of Michael Franks, but soon discovered the late Nick Drake, the British folky-jazzy singer-songwriter whose influence was much more widely felt especially among other musicians and songwriters, than the minimal commercial success Drake enjoyed in his short life. Sellwood cites Drake’s Pink Moon as the first album that really resonated with him, and Drake’s influence is all over Sellwood’s music, from his quiet low vocals to the ornate fingerpicking on acoustic guitar.
The album’s producer, John Wright, described meeting the then 18-year-old Sellwood, who sang him a couple of songs and was looking to make a short “indie” album. But Wright was impressed and urged Sellwood to do more songs, and there was more than enough for a full album. Multi-instrumentalist Steve Lehto was brought in and did arranging, giving the music a variety of settings from rock to more contemplative folk, and also includes some strings as Nick Drake’s music did. Sellwood writes than this album’s sessions were the first time he had done any recording. Sellwood is very appealing as a performer, in an understated way, and he certainly channels the English folk sound of the late 1960s, a time forty years before he was born. Like many of Drake’s songs, Sellwood’s lyrics are fairly oblique, but sometimes his poetry can be a little clunky or awkward in phrasing, but his warm musical personality more than makes up for it.
Opening is a piece called This Time which well demonstrates Sellwood’s Nick Drake influence both vocally and in terms of guitar style. <<>> But the arrangement picks up steam and ends up being more electric than Drake would do back in the day. <<>>
A song called To Be Saved continues with the nice combination of the British folk influence with a more electric arrangement. <<>>
Sands of Mine shows off Sellwood’s fingerpicking style in another tip of the hat to Nick Drake. <<>>
The strings, make perhaps their most prominent appearance on a track called This Is for Someone, an interesting tune that however, would probably not win a prize for poetry. <<>>
Who Hasn’t Once is one of the most electric arrangements on the album, and it works well, providing an interesting contrast between Sellwood’s laid-back style and the rock influenced musical accompaniment. <<>>
On the other hand, Sellwood’s contemplative style is highlighted on Your Light, with his nice fingerpicking and the string arrangement. <<>>
The title track Otherwise is a highlight of the album even though it’s one of the most electric on the recording. <<>>
The album ends with one of its “Nick-Drakeiest” tracks, What I Wanted with the more of his nice fingerpicking, and the strings again featured. <<>>
Now about 19 years old, Nolen Sellwood looks a lot younger than that, with his nerdy glasses and big Afro, but he uncannily channels the music of perhaps two generations ago, while adding his own twist. Of course, Bob Dylan was about Nolen’s age when he also emerged from Minnesota, showing that each generation has its youthful prodigies. Nolan Sellwood may not be quite the lyricist that Dylan was at his age, but he nevertheless has created a very impressive debut album.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with a sonic approach that is right for Sellwood’s understated sound, but also captures the music when it rocks out without it becoming too much.
When one reaches a certain age, it’s nice to be reassured that a younger generation is capable of carrying on the traditions, while adding new creative blood. Nolen Sellwood’s Otherwise is a great affirmation of that, and makes for worthwhile listening.
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