Sean Scolnick is still toying with the idea of moving to Portland.
"We're pretty much on the road seven, eight months out of the year, so it's more of a fantasy than a reality," says Scolnick, better known by stage name Langhorne Slim, taken from his hometown of Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "My girlfriend lives in California and I've still got my family on the East Coast. I would love to be able to get a little house in Portland someday, and call that home—I'm still hoping that can happen. We'll see. But that's why I pushed to do the record in your town."
He's talking about Be Set Free, his new full-length, which was recorded this past April and May at Portland's Type Foundry Studio with Chris Funk of the Decemberists producing and Norfolk & Western's Adam Selzer engineering. Accompanied by drummer Malachi DeLorenzo and upright bassist Jeff Ratner, Scolnick has crafted an extraordinary and nuanced album that might surprise fans of the sweaty, bluegrass-soul revue of Langhorne Slim's live show.
"The funny part is that Sean kept saying, 'I want to make a danceable record,' but I think we made the opposite," says Funk. "A lot of the songs I was most drawn to from him were the ballads; on his last record he has a great song called 'Diamonds and Gold' that's one of his more popular songs. So I was like, people love your ballads. You're a great ballad writer. This is a side of you that you shouldn't be afraid of. Let's just make whatever record we think is going to sound cool at the end of the day and not be conscious of delivering an upbeat party record. He doesn't always have to be the guy at Pickathon jumping up and down with a fucking banjo."
Be Set Free is an intoxicating listen, one that frames Langhorne Slim in a brand-new light and plainly makes the case for Scolnick as one of the best American songwriters currently active. The foundation of his songs is always simple: a genuinely heartfelt sentiment, a handful of chords, and a straightforward delivery. Over this, Funk has crafted a dizzying, almost baroque palette of vocals, horns, accordion, and flurried strings, courtesy of a group of Portland musicians including Laura Veirs, Lisa Molinaro of Talkdemonic, Victor Nash of Point Juncture, WA, and many others. It brings to mind the perfect orchestrations of Astral Weeks, its chamber-folk qualities kept from turning precious by Scolnick's from-the-gut blues hollering.
But when I crashed the studio during a session back in May, the end product was not immediately apparent. Keyboardist Sam Kassirer was laying down an overdub for "So Glad That I'm Coming Home," and over the course of several takes it evolved from polite, antebellum, gospelish upright piano to a dirtier, funkier pass on a Rhodes electric piano. At the end of several exhausting takes—"We gotta go pour Gatorade on Sam's head," joked Scolnick—no one was certain if they captured the best sound for the song.
Listening to the terrific Be Set Free a few months later, it's clear that the method of controlled experimentation paid off, resulting in one of the best records of the year. "Funk came in with ideas and plans, as did I," says Scolnick. "Then we just started playing stuff and if it felt right or exciting, we would carry on with it. If there is a grand plan, I'm just not sure about it."