Last year guitarist Eli Winter, while still in college, put out his debut album following the experience of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. The storm soaked into a few of the pieces on The Time to Come, but primarily has bright bits of post-disaster hope. That album came out in a time of relative calm, but as Winter began his follow-up release, we entered the coronavirus era. It seems like a young musician can’t catch a break these days. Undeterred, Winter proceeded with Unbecoming, a forceful record that shows him taking the big step that his previous work promised.
That first record, residing in at least the neighborhood of American primitive, had plenty of technique and a sharp, clear sound, but Winter sounded a little as if he was testing the water (hurricane reference not intended). On tour following that release, he flexed a little more, showing assertiveness and a thicker tone. His references to Jack Rose as a major influence began to make more sense as he pushed himself into new places. Listening to Winter in person suggested that his future music might offer even more heft along with some surprises, and Unbecoming doesn’t disappoint.
The album begins with the ambitious 22-minute “Either I Would Become Ash”, a piece that poses challenges to which Winter rises. He based the piece on poet Tory Dent’s writing on living with AIDS, working through the complexity of both being stuck in the shadow of imminent mortality and the possibility of escape. Winter’s piece runs as a narrative arc, the slow strums of the opening allowing each note to fill space as he creates tension. He uses his low strings more throughout, deepening the background tone as he moves through this story. By blending melodic ideas with more abstract expressions, Winter performs a piece worth of attentive listening. He builds to joy in the middle of the piece, but it’s not a victorious number – the shadow returns by the end, the lengthy rests bringing a renewed thoughtfulness to a meditation that briefly soared.
“Dark Light” maintains that sort of crepuscular ambivalence. The cut comes from a plugged-in live performance, and the recording captures the space. The track fills itself with more experimental noise than usual, but also with empty space, or at least empty aside from the resonance of the notes in a small area (and the audience). It’s a different sort of Winter here, a reminder that he’s still discovering how many paths he can follow.
One of those paths, perhaps the most unexpected one, includes leading a band. His single (a term used laconically for a seven-minute experiment) “Maroon” features a pedal steel guitar (Sam Wagster of Mute Duo), drums (Circuit Des Yeux’s Tyler Damon), and another guitarist (old-time expert Cameron Knowler). The piece starts with a full sound and Winter’s picking just a part of an ensemble work. Wagster’s tone sets the song somewhere out West, but it’s no country number. Pedal steel has long since proven itself to be more flexible than it used to seem, and Wagster builds the sort of atmosphere that suits Winter’s general aesthetic (this band’s no more likely to take the stage with Robert Randolph than they are with Susan Alcorn). The wonderful writing and group cohesion makes for a nice new entry in Winter’s growing catalog.
Each piece works on its own, suggesting separate directions: inventive epics, a full-band album, electric experiments that put deep listening in the Chicago underground. Even so, Unbecoming coheres around Winter’s sensibilities. That unity might be formally pleasing, but it’s more exciting to listen to Winter start to really test himself and figure out what’s out there for him. His leap over the past year shows us that we’re seeing an artist in the process of (album title aside) genuinely becoming.