On Mount Royal, their second album together, Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge craft songs that sound familiar but are never easily classified. Percolating with tinges of bluegrass and folk, insinuations of jazz and pop, hints of classical and avant garde composition, the album rarely settles into any one particular category; rather, it dances around the territory between genres, never announcing its innovations and prizing soulfulness above chops at every turn. From first note to last, the duo push themselves to find new ways to play their flat-top steel-string acoustic Martins together.
“Playing with Jules, it feels like anything is possible,” says Eldridge. “You have no constraints. There’s just so much room to move around. It’s like playing in a sandbox, which really opens you up to being more creative.” Adds Lage: “Our rapport is based on the idea that we’re researchers studying this idea of what two acoustic guitars can do together, how you can integrate that into instrumental songwriting and how you can reconcile that with vocal music. Our collaboration is like a big research project that’s been going on for years.”
Lage is a renowned jazz guitarist who has collaborated with a range of musicians—Nels Cline, Gary Burton, and Fred Hersch, to name a few. According to the New Yorker, he belongs “in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them.” Eldridge is a veteran of the bluegrass world, cutting his teeth in the legendary outfits the Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters before anchoring Punch Brothers, an acoustic supergroup that combines folk instrumentation with pop and experimental songcraft. When they play together, however, they do not represent the genres or styles with which they have long been identified. “It’s not the United Nations,” laughs Lage. “It’s not like I’m the jazz representative and he’s the bluegrass representative. We could care less about that.” Instead, they make music simply as friends and individuals who happen to have unique ideas and techniques.
After meeting and jamming backstage at a Punch Brothers show, the two became fast friends and eventually started playing shows together. Their chemistry was undeniable, each pulling the other out of his comfort zone. “Bluegrass can be very empirical,” says Eldridge. “Things can be right or wrong. But that’s not the way it works with us. It’s all about ‘yes and…’ which is an improv comedy technique. No matter what someone says, you say, ‘yes and…’ and you build on that. You move forward.” In 2013 they released an EP of original songs, followed quickly by their debut album, Avalon, which was modeled after their live shows. “It’s a sophisticated guitar LP that doesn’t sound sophisticated,” Pitchfork gushed, “an effort that folds its intense erudition deep beneath its lovely surface.”
For Mount Royal, they wanted to do something different—something less grounded in their live show, something more exploratory and innovative. “These songs are experiments,” says Lage. “They are things we maybe always wanted to hear but hadn’t heard done yet. So we did them ourselves. We made this record for ourselves.” Those experiments were rooted in the songwriting process, during which they gave each other prompts and exercises. Each would sequester himself alone in a room with maybe an hour to brainstorm a handful of songs, armed only with a pre-war Martin acoustic—Lage’s 1939 000-18 and Eldridge’s 1937 D-18.
“There was a lot of wide-open creativity,” says Eldridge. “We would put ourselves under a lot of pressure, which can really force things out of you that might not emerge if you had time to belabor it.” They would share the results with each other, toying around with good ideas and jettisoning scraps of melody that led nowhere. Says Lage: “We would improvise an idea for thirty minutes, record that, and see how we could intuitively develop the material. Then we would sleep on it and see if it worked the next day. A lot of stuff didn’t work."
But a lot of stuff did work. Scraps of melody or rhythm blossomed into intricate and disarmingly beautiful songs, leading the duo in directions they never would have gone by themselves. On “Bone Collector” the steadiness of Eldridge’s tight, staccato strumming provides the propulsion for Lage’s pointillist fretwork, while the epic “Everything Must Go” hinges on a rushing fanfare that comes out of nowhere to transform the song. Their guitars sound like pianos on “Lion’s Share,” which Lage describes as an “excuse for us to inhabit a space that’s very constant, very melodic, and a little bit weird.”
Most of Mount Royal is instrumental, just two guitars traipsing across new territory, but three vocal tracks—all covers, all sung by Eldridge—made their way onto the album. Their interpretation of the bluegrass chestnut “Things in Life” is spirited and vigorous, as is the duo’s take on the motor-mouthed John Hartford obscurity “Living in the Mississippi Valley.” Perhaps the most surprising cover is “Sleeping By Myself,” which Lage discovered on Eddie Vedder’s 2011 album Ukulele Songs. “We needed something outside of the traditional acoustic vocabulary to feature his voice in a very specific way,” says Lage, “so we looked outside the traditional world.”
Eldridge admits he was initially dubious: “My first thought was, ‘A ukulele record? By Eddie Vedder? Hmm….’ But it’s an amazing record. And that song sounds like something from the Great American Songbook.” As he laments an empty bed and a lonely night, the two guitars collapse into what sounds like only one, reinforcing the romantic seclusion of the lyric and spotlighting Eldridge’s quietly affecting vocals.
Ultimately, every note and every melody, every riff and rhythm on Mount Royal serves the song. In that regard the album sounds ascetic yet lush, modest yet incredibly accomplished, experimental but focused on something beyond the players themselves. It’s an approach that has given them a new understanding of their chosen instruments: “A guitar can be like an orchestra,” says Eldridge. “It really is a polyphonic instrument. It can be percussive or lyrical. Exploring those ideas with Jules, it really felt like the opportunity for expression and exploration was infinite.”
Adds Lage: “We came at it with the idea, ‘what skills can these songs teach us that we wouldn’t have learned otherwise?’ To share that experience with someone you love as a friend is a great privilege.”
Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge Recordings from Free Dirt Records: