In the bands Spatula and Shark Quest, North Carolina native Chuck Johnson dealt, respectively, with atavistic indie rock and stately instrumental anthems. Since leaving for college and California, Johnson has built a distinct, different reputation as a solo fingerpicker, his songs refined and meditative.
But on the new Velvet Arc, Johnson picks up an electric guitar and returns to full-band life, at least in part, for a seven-track album that’s as fuzzy, warm, and graceful as its title claims. Velvet Arc begins with the brooding “As I Stand Counting,” where low-end riffs trudge through plodding percussion. He gets lush and hazy for “Everything at Once” but sculpts the sensation for “Anamet,” which drifts as though suspended in a dream for seven minutes. “Anamet” previously appeared on 2015’s Blood Moon Boulder under a different name, Johnson’s trebly guitar underscored only by the sighs of pedal steel. Here, he adds loping synthesizers and faint percussion, his past successes now reinforced by the help of new peers. The coda stretches like a permanent sunset.
Velvet Arc begins to bend with the title track, moving from mild psychedelia into pastoral realms, as if Johnson’s scoring winter’s slip into spring. If “Anamet” gathers the final weeks of February, “Velvet Arc” announces springtime, with pedal steel and fiddle suggesting gentler winds. “Roadside Auspice” patters at a moderate clip, like a sunny afternoon drive through the countryside, a feeling echoed in the back-roads cruiser of snappy closer “Middle Water.”
Johnson is part of a passel of excellent, relatively new solo guitaristsGlenn Jones, William Tyler, Cian Nugent, Steve Gunn, Daniel Bachman. Sometimes, all their exquisite flurries of steel-stringed notes can blur, with even distinct styles melding into one. On Velvet Arc, though, Johnson manages to merge his rock-band past with his intimate solo reflections, moving toward more dynamic material and into a moment of distinction.