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***The first sound you hear on prolific duo Elkhorn’s latest album, On The Whole Universe In All Directions, is Jesse Sheppard’s 12-string guitar. This is followed almost immediately by a single reverberating note on the vibraphone courtesy of Elkhorn co-founder Drew Gardner, before the piece unfurls to include skittering cymbals and tumbling percussion, overdubbed by Gardner, who in Elkhorn previously provided much of the Fender Telecaster yin to Sheppard’s big and beguiling 12-string yang. The absence of Gardner’s electric guitar is the first of many surprises on this, the first album of Elkhorn material since 2018’s Lionfish to feature only the group’s two founding members, and the first to introduce both the vibraphone and Elkhorn as a single-guitar unit. The nominally back-to-basics duo approach is anything but a backward step, and one hopes, listening to the marvelous On The Whole Universe In All Directions, it is no outlier.
While the band’s recent records thrillingly augmented the core duo with various players from the first- call directory of underground music A-listers, On The Whole Universe In All Directions, recorded at Gardner’s Harlem home studio of sixteen years, distills the Elkhorn sound into something as revelatory as it is unexpected. Despite the minimal set-up, the expansive album proves to be as enchanting as anything in the group’s discography.
The album sleeve features a striking and eye-catching painting, by artist Yosuh Jones, of a Red-tailed hawk. The image of this, one of the largest North American birds, seems significant: Gardner’s studio, which overlooks a park on 147th Street, is home to many of these raptors. Red-tailed hawks are known to hunt in pairs, often guarding both sides of the same tree to close in on their prey. You could say they’re known for their teamwork...