What a long, strange trip it’s been ~ the musical travels of Austin’s Rob Lowe and Michael Muller (Balmorhea), who over the course of a decade have come full circle, only to discover that the place they left has changed. Clear Language can be considered a homecoming, a return to roots, or perhaps even a coda. The new set revisits the timbres of the self-titled album, which we covered long ago when we all wrote for another site.
For half a decade, the duo expanded its sound, adding instruments and players, culminating in the orchestral sounds of Live at Sint-Elizabethkirk and Stranger. Then they seemed to disappear, save for an explosive 7″ (Heir) in 2014. When other artists were tagged “for those who like Balmorhea”, the association was to a full, dynamic sound. But lost in translation was the intimacy of that very first self-released CD that made us all fall in love with them in the first place. There’s a certain irony to the fact that the duo’s last release was a lathe cut re-issue of “We Will Rebuild With Smooth Stones”, as this is exactly what they’ve done on Clear Language. The title speaks volumes about the warmth of two old friends having a musical conversation.
The title track (and lead single) is the album in a microcosm. Built around a simple yet memorable motif, the track invites the listener in like a dinner guest. After this, it’s a leisurely tour of the house and its instruments ~ piano, guitar, glockenspiel, strings ~ followed by a relaxed meal. When “Sky Could Undress” pauses a minute before ending, it’s as if to whisper a cherished secret. By now, we’re all in on it; the secret is that restraint is stronger than excess. Only once does the sound threaten to rattle the furniture, as if to say, “we can, we simply choose not to.” The final minute of “Slow Stone” and the brief “Ecco” remind us that the duo has not gone soft, but has been honed by experience.
Where does Clear Language rank in the duo’s discography? With so many nods to the duo’s past, the new album is best compared to the earliest material. This being said, it’s a matter of taste. Those who preferred the more extroverted sound may be disappointed, while those who missed the introverted sound will be thrilled. But as much as one wants to step back into the same stream, one cannot. The languid nature of these tracks betrays the fact that the duo is tighter, more instinctive than ever before, no longer raw. While once their songs held serrated edges, now everything is smooth like the stones, neither wild nor silent, but clear, as clear as the duo’s newfound calling. From now on, when anyone says, “sounds like Balmorhea”, we’ll need to ask a clarifying question: which era? Below the surface, this sound has always been there, defining their core. Welcome back, old friends.