By Jason Shoff
Ambsace, the title of James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg’s second collaborative album, is a choice for a name indeed. Even more so once you read that the definition of ambsace is “the lowest throw of the dice” or “something worthless or unlucky.” I mean, are they trying to tell us that this album is a worthless throwaway of a record? One look at their backgrounds would make you think otherwise: Elkington has performed with everyone from Richard Thompson and Steve Gunn to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy; and Salsburg, in addition to his recent collaborations with Joan Shelley, has worked as a curator for the Alan Lomax archive. In other words, their careers have been anything but unlucky, and they clearly have the knowledge and experience necessary to craft an absolutely phenomenal record if they set their mind to it.
Thankfully, this is the one time that I’m glad that an album doesn’t live up to its title. With Ambsace, they’ve managed to create an instrumental acoustic record that is anything but boring, skillfully weaving their guitars in and out of each other as only two pros can. And while it’s definitely clear that both Elkington and Salsburg have skill and talent in spades, their playing is never showy, which is the key to this record’s success. After all, it can be easy for two virtuoso guitarists like them to adhere to a style that’s all flash and no substance, but that’s just simply not the case with Ambsace: on this album, both players manage to strike a perfect balance of intricacy and simplicity that is very rare in instrumental records.
The song choice is also key to what makes the album work. Very few records take the risk of putting a Duke Ellington song and a Smiths classic on the same album, and even fewer manage to make it sound like both tunes were cut from the same cloth. But that’s the case with Ambsace, to the point where the pure rustic Americana of “Reel Around the Fountain” is the high point of an album. As for other highlights, the straight-up John Fahey-esque of “Bee Thing,” the percussion-driven album opener “Up of Stairs,” and “The Narrowing of Grey Park,” featuring a beautiful violin played by Wanees Zanour, all stand out. But really, this is an album that has to be listened to of a piece, taken as a whole and played all the way through on a rainy afternoon; which, in a world where more and more listeners are putting a greater focus on individual songs, is incredibly refreshing.