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Unlike the Stars
By Vin Downes
Label: Riverwide Records
Released 1/25/2014
Unlike the Stars tracks
1. Where I Began
2. Riverbend
3. Dark Blue Wind
4. Departure
5. All We Ever Wanted
6. Unlike the Stars
7. Skies and Openings
8. Window, Looking Back
9. Unweaving
10. What Falls Away
11. Turning Years
12. Window, Looking Back (solo)
13. Turning Years (alternate mix)
Unlike the Stars
According to his bio, acoustic guitarist Vin Downes was profoundly influenced by Windham Hill's stable of artists from the late '80s (Will Ackerman, Michael Hedges, David Cullen, et al.) and it shows on his third release, Unlike the Stars. Part of that may be due to the production influence from Will Ackerman himself, along with co-producer and engineer Tom Eaton (the album was recorded at Imaginary Road Studios), but there can be no denying that Downes' own artistic muse and his obvious mastery of his instrument are the driving elements in the success of this instantly enjoyable recording. Like a well-worn pair of corduroy trousers or a favorite sweatshirt, Downes' instrumentals make one feel at home, comfortable, and at ease.

This is what I refer to as "rural" music at its finest - music meant for trips along country roads, wending one's way across a landscape of picturesque small towns, family farms, state forests, or whatever passes for an enjoyable cruising environment for the listener. While there are a few guest artists who pop up now and then (guitarist Will Ackerman, Tom Eaton on piano, cellist Eugene Friesen, bassist Tony Levin, and flutist David Watson), this is more or less a solo guitar album. I don't mean that to diminish either the talent of the others who appear on the album, or minimize the value of what they contribute. However, unlike some other recordings which have come forth from Imaginary Road, Unlike the Stars seems focused on being more intimate and solo-oriented.

With the bulk of the heavy-lifting left to Downes, he does not disappoint, playing his acoustic guitar with an intimacy and gentle grace that makes it feel like he is playing just for you. Part of this may be the expert mixing/mastering job by Eaton, which sounds superb (especially on headphones) or perhaps it is simply Downes' playing, playing which manages to mesh obvious technical mastery of his instrument with an uncomplicated and accessible approach to melody. The thirteen tracks vary in a low-key way, i.e. nothing here is overly rambunctious but also nothing is too morose. The last two songs are re-mixes of a sort, one being a solo version of a previous piece (window, looking back) which featured flutist Watson, and the last cut is an "alternate mix" of turning years.

where I began opens the CD on a light-hearted note, with a gently rolling, mid-tempo melody, and featuring Levin's bass playing (he enters the song at about the mid-point). When Downes' softens his playing, a sweet wistfulness creeps into the music, prompting a smile from me when it happens. riverbend also conveys a subdued sense of movement, just as where I began did, but here the mood is slightly more reflective, less openly cheerful. On dark blue wind, Downes' music draws inspiration from Ackerman's characteristic tone poem somberness. It's a startling evocative and beautiful piece of music. departure returns to a lighter mood, with a slightly hopeful cast to the tune, evoking the anticipation of a trip to a better place (Ackerman sits in on this track playing guitar). all we ever wanted reminds me of rural folk music - a hint of regret or sorrow, tinted with the warm glow of remembrance colored by fond recall. For some reason, Downes' fingerstyle playing talent seems to really stand out on this track. One of the artist's most prominent strengths is his ability to play very softly without losing any of the melody's emotion. He exhibits an uncommon control of nuance and shading. The title track is a pensive, thoughtful tone poem, not really sad, but somber, and yet totally engaging. Friesen's cello deepens the emotional resonance of the song and for some reason I pictured a wide expanse of prairie with a run-down farmhouse off to one side, lit by the setting sun. The mood lightens considerably on the next song, skies and openings, which features Eaton contributing on piano (again, the decision is made to not have the guest player enter the track until the middle, which must certainly be by design since this appears to be the pattern on the CD). There is a "dancing under the moonlight" feel to this piece - joyful, but in a restrained way.

There are still more songs on the album, but they all pretty much follow what has come before, which means they are all winners, with a mixture of subtly uptempo tunes and relaxed, laid-back numbers. turning years (the version with Watson's flutes) has a very slight jazz leaning, but not in any way to subvert the overall theme of the album.

As I wrote above, this is ideal traveling music (traveling by car, that is). I strongly recommend taking Unlike the Stars along with you the next time wanderlust hits you and let Vin Downes provide the perfect soundtrack for wherever the road takes you.
Rating: Very Good +   Very Good +
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 4/15/2014
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