It must have seemed like quite a boon to guitarist Phil Carney when Mark Kozelek, his leader in Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, started contributing vocals to Carney’s own Desertshore project. From a listener’s perspective, however, that blessing has been mixed. Formed by Carney and keyboardist Chris Connolly, Desertshore began as a dusky, post-rock-inflected instrumental project with the release of their debut album, 2010’s Drifting Your Majesty. Kozelek eased himself in as a guest vocalist on 2011’s Drawing of Threes; by the time 2013’s Mark Kozelek and Desertshore rolled around, his name was on the marquee. Understandably, a project that features Kozelek as well as a member of his own bands was going to get compared to those bands. In that comparison, Mark Kozelek and Desertshore turned out pretty well— and that was the problem. Desertshore no longer seemed like a distinct entity; in fact, the group barely ever had the chance to establish itself as such in the first place.
Migrations of Glass is Desertshore’s fourth album, and Kozelek—who’s gained a lot of attention lately from Benji, no complaints there—has scaled back his contribution to one track, “Crosstown Seven”. On that track, he only plays bass; his sepia croon is nowhere to be found. For all intents and purposes, then, Migrations might as well be Desertshore’s second album instead of its fourth. The core of Carney and Connolly is once again the nerve center, and not only have they found new facets of their instrumental dynamic to explore, they’ve done so with more passion. On “Crosstown Seven”, arpeggios are laced together intricately, a dizzying crisscross of pings and peals that render guitar and piano practically indistinguishable. The rhythm section measures out a mathy tempo that’s nonetheless light as dandelion fluff, reminiscent of the Sea and Cake circa The Biz. Kozelek’s bass line, bottom-heavy yet buoyant, is all the outside contribution that’s needed.
“Crosstown Seven” is just one bone in Migration’s sturdy rock spine—it’s a holdover from Drifting, which sounded as if it could have been a Sun Kil Moon session before vocals had been laid down. “Until Morning Comes” is the track on Migration that comes closest to Sun Kil Moon’s more orthodox songwriting, but Carney’s smoky strumming tells a story all its own, naturally set somewhere in the inverse twilight of the predawn calm. Connolly’s keys do most of the speaking, though, thanks to his eerie ability to phrase melodies as warm, organic cadences. Carney may not have played on Benji, but Connolly did; he’s best heard toward the end of “Micheline”, where his subtle tinkling feels like a ghostly whisper. He reprises that sensation on the ostensible sequel to “Until Morning Comes”, “The Morning Is Open”, which paints an expressionistic portrait of stillness, sunlight, and the potential energy they contain. It’s gorgeously placid, even bordering on new age. Carney and Connolly are invading new territory, and they’re occupying it with quiet conviction.
As synched as the two musicians are throughout most of Migrations, it’s their contrast that holds the most promise. Connolly is classically trained, and it’s hard not to assume he’s referencing Philip Glass—particularly works like “Music In Similar Motion”— on Migration’s “Glasslight”, a study in cascading, oscillation-rich minimalism. On Carney’s end, he takes the lead on “Intermezzo”, a Takoma-style quickie for unaccompanied guitar that manages to pack a wealth of haunting, John Fahey-esque twang into a one-minute burst. “Tempest Armada”, on the other hand, is the longest song in the album, eleven minutes of melodic post-rock peaks, valleys, and curved surfaces that’s reminiscent of Cul de Sac’s most arresting epics. There’s a sprawl to Migrations that shows more confidence and ambition than all of Desertshore’s prior output combined. It doesn’t always click, though: “Enduro Nocturno” doesn’t commit deeply enough to its celestial Krautrock thrum, and the Crazy Horse-goes-fusion vibe of “Mesa Verde” has too many clashing angles. But when it does come together, which is often, it shows that Carney and Connolly are well on their way to climbing out from under the boss’ shadow.