If YouTube has taught us anything, which is debatable, it’s that there’s no shortage of dazzling instrumentalists in any genre you can imagine. Bluegrass-inspired musician Eli West is one of the talented artists you can find there, but what makes his album, Tapered Point of Stone, different is his ability to use his prowess not to make the listener feel bad about their own lack of finger-to-fretboard coordination, but instead to charm them with lovely melodies that are every bit as understandable as vocals.
West comes from a background in graphic design. The visual art background seems tied to his songwriting vision, as the tracks here feel composed, like a painting or photograph designed to precisely evoke emotions. Improvisation is always going to be an important part of bluegrass, and there’s plenty of it here, across an album that’s predominantly instrumentals, but it also seems like every performance begins with an intention that’s reinforced by restraint and melody.
That means instrumental tracks like “Ginny’s Little Longhorn,” which bounces and swings with pure joy, fiddles practically laughing and mandolins almost hopping, like children finally getting to play outside after a long day of school. There’s a lot going on musically, but it’s also a track that you can, and will, hum and whistle after a few listens. “Sweet Marie,” a standard, similarly sticks in your head. Here violin bellows like bagpipes, conjuring images of a lush green countryside that could be Ireland, but might also be West’s native Seattle.
West’s vocal songs are also strong. “I Know Your Wandering Heart,” a Chris Coole tune, has a slower groove, with an almost trippy beat. Julie Fowlis’ vocals sweeten West’s more straightforward ones. The song occupies a space somewhere between pop, folk, country, and bluegrass, somehow all of them and none of them. The arrangement is deceptively simple and the song’s impact comes from the honesty of the vocals. West’s singing is quietly earnest, making for a performance that’s hard to ignore. It’s another example of West showing it’s the quality of notes more than the number of them that makes for a strong song. (See a performance of this song at Folk Alley.)
Tapered Point of Stone has a vision of bluegrass committed to song and melody. West sticks to his plan, making the album feel like its own solid, contained structure. In fact, his album cover is a pyramid, the ultimate tribute to quality construction. The music and songs are intricate in their arrangements and execution, but their consistency across the album makes the tunes accessible. You hear West’s voice, vocal and instrumental, in all of the songs, making them instantly recognizable, but more importantly than that, also enjoyable.