Joe Westerlund is a drummer familiar from many possible contexts. For a decade, he served as the dynamic backbone of Megafaun, the North Carolina trio of sophisticated songwriting and winning charisma that he cofounded. As Grandma Sparrow, Westerlund constructed fantastical song cycles about an imagined town, a place where swooping strings and sudden singalongs told the stories of characters you needed to be real. Under his own name, Westerlund—a longtime student of Milford Graves—has emerged as an intuitive improviser, committed to scoring deep yogic practice. He serves now as the pulse beneath the plaintive Americana of Mandolin Orange and Daughter of Swords and, previously, as the anchor for the folk abstraction of Califone. He added incisive percussion to a big-band version of Sylvan Esso and buoyed the svelte stoner soul of Gayngs, old friends from his Wisconsin childhood.
All those threads crisscross and even coil during Reveries in the Rift, Westerlund’s immersive second album under his own name. Recorded with a small cast of collaborators (including Mountain Goats multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, acclaimed improviser Jennifer Curtis, and trombonist Evan Ringel), these eight tracks recast his wealth of experiences into a series of splendid instrumental fantasies and scene-setting vignettes without ever forsaking a sense of song. Opener “Ituri Air” feels like floating inside some colorful cloud, ribboned electronics and intertwined strings and winds passing by like vaporous waves. “Marijuaguancó” suggests dual prisms of dub and grime, while “Emergent Marbled Weaver” conjures an image of Westerlund, studying his kit for every smallest sound, bowing cymbals and tapping bells.
Still, a rootedness remains, Westerlund never letting the listener drift too far from the center he has established. All the percolating rhythms of “Pattern Return,” for instance, eventually culminate into something that approaches a march. And before Westerlund begins to decorate and then dislodge the meter of the closing triumph, “Two Symbols/One,” he first pulls us into its hypnotic repetition, as if building trust before guiding us into the unknown. Westerlund, after all, has now spent three decades gleaning lessons from folk musicians and avant-garde icons, from close friends and challenging strangers. Out of that magpie past, Reveries in the Rift is the home Westerlund welcomes us into, as personal and warm as it is idiosyncratic and enthralling.
Psychic Hotline releases Reveries in the Rift Wednesday, Feb. 26.
– Grayson Haver Currin