Record Review: On Blues from WHAT, Jenks Miller Joins the Threads | Record Review | Indy Week

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Record Review: On Blues from WHAT, Jenks Miller Joins the Threads

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During the last decade, you could have heard half a dozen records featuring the Chapel Hill multi-instrumentalist Jenks Miller and never realized they shared a band name, let alone a key musician. In the solo guise of Horseback, Miller's material has been deliberately mercurial, shifting shapes between wafting waves of instrumental drone and mangled composites of black metal and doom. Under his own name, he's moved freely among extended finger-style improvisations, noisy clamor, and ambient murmur. Even Mount Moriah, the brazen alt-country band he co-leads alongside steely singer Heather McEntire, slides between soul and roots rock, soft ballads and hard anthems. Tracking clear lines within this body of work can seem a fool's errand, a search for signals that never even existed.

But Blues from WHAT at last represents an intersection of the unseen, the point where all those lines begin to converge at once. The first proper album from the new Jenks Miller & Rose Cross NC, an evolving recording-and-performance collaboration between Miller and his wife, Elysse Thebner Miller, Blues from WHAT splits four tracks across two distinct sides. Collectively, they find Miller attempting to piece together the stylistic puzzle of his past, or at least recognizing that all his sounds emerge from the same source.

The ascendant hum of opener "Reaching Never Reaching" recalls his gorgeous, amorphous soundscapes with Nicholas Szczepanik a half-decade ago, while the circular drums and loping organ of the title track conjure the trance of Horseback's foreboding Half Blood. The infinitely unfurling guitar of "Scrying in Water" could have been lifted from the cutting room floor of 2008's Approaching the Invisible Mountain, and the piece's twin senses of momentum and progression betray the recent victories of Mount Moriah. Hissed vocals and sculpted noise, corrosive leads and serpentine riffs, exquisite tones and sonic flotsam—it's as if, for the first time, Miller has realized he can only go so far on one stylistic strand. Here, for one of the most compelling and engrossing sets of his career, he allows those elements to lift one another.

Late in "Scrying in Water," the guitar and incidental percussion slink toward silence. Suddenly, the riff returns, its acidic squeal eliciting Day-Glo flashbacks. Drums dance around the lead before it all fades into a slow, still drone. It is a beautiful, lucid moment, the latest summit of an arduous, often unpredictable exploration.

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