A decade-plus on the road, near-constant musical output, and shifting creative priorities caused the revered Austin duo, comprised of multi-instrumentalists Rob Lowe and Michael Muller, to soberly assess the band’s future. What, in the form of Balmorhea, was there left to say? And did they have the energy to say it?
Stranger, the group’s maximalist, genre-leaping full-length from 2012, and the HEIR singles, from 2014, had already seemed to trace the group’s farthest bounds. And, over the years, they’d worked with a roving cast of accomplished string and rhythm players to craft a glassy-eyed, sage-brushed, instrumental Americana that, while celebrated in The New Yorker, Pitchfork and The Atlantic, among myriad other press, and attracting the film, ad, and television worlds — Balmorhea’s “Bowsprit” incites trembling in the credits of the Sundance show Rectify — risked pigeonholing them for good.
Still, though Muller and Lowe sensed that winds hinted at change, they also knew the form of it couldn’t be grasped in the abstract. So, in the spring of 2016, the two longtime friends decamped to Balmorhea’s East Austin studio to suss out what, if anything, was left to convey.
As they had in the beginning, in 2006, Muller and Lowe worked simply and with restraint, letting intuition guide them as they molded 30-plus raw ideas into the 10 elegant, spacious gestures that comprise Clear Language. They eschewed complexity for complexity’s sake, allowing a watery, sand-hued mood to settle over their use of analog synthesizers, piano, vibraphone, electric and bass guitar, violin, viola, field recordings, and, for the first time in the band’s history, trumpet, performed by Tedeschi Trucks' Ephraim Owens. A relaxed, clear-eyed wonder tumbles through these songs like herons lancing through Kerouac’s “hungermaking” fog.
Clear Language was released by Western Vinyl, Balmorhea’s longtime label, in September 2017. The album was co-produced and engineered by David Boyle in Austin’s Church House Studios, a renovated Jazz-era haunt — originally housing a Baptist congregation — that has also hosted musicians from Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studio.
This spring, in cities across Europe, Balmorhea will bring Clear Language to life with a full band of multi-instrumentalists. Audiences can also expect to hear classic works from All is Wild, All is Silent, Stranger, Constellations — the spareness of which invites comparisons to Clear Language — and more from Balmorhea’s dense catalog, dating back to 2006.