Over the past few years, Chicago multi-instrumentalist Alex Cowling has released several solo albums that combine weather-beaten indie rock, spacious jazz, and easygoing folk, and he’s done it to little or no fanfare. When I ask him about the new Antarctica, he tells me that one of the few people who’s listened to it is his aunt. I was hooked by the album’s lush ensemble recordings while trawling Bandcamp late one night, and I haven’t been able to shake them since. Cowling assembled the record piecemeal, working with seven musicians he’d recruited through a variety of channels—he plays with drummer Nick Bolchoz in psych-rock band Local Void, for instance, and he connected with pedal-steel guitarist Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner through a Craigslist ad.
It took a year and a half for Cowling to turn Antarctica from a collection of ideas into a carefully orchestrated album with ample room for sidewinding explorations. He breathes life into its songs by carefully deploying the contributions of his collaborators, including tense mandolin atop dreamy, echoing keys (“47.2172° N, 95.2048° W”), a smoldering sax slicing through regimented guitars (“Never Sympathy”), and a sighing cello that rides a spindly, whimsical bass line (“Pure Human Oil”). His music conjures tranquil winds curling along mountainside pathways, and he drew inspiration from his own forays into nature—the technicolor “Ascending Mt. Avron” takes its name from the highest point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which Cowling climbed for the first time on his honeymoon in August. The country-tinged “Cafe Scene” opens sparsely, with hushed vocals floating through arching guitar figures, and then blossoms into serene chamber pop led by sprightly piano. Cowling’s gentle voice makes it sound like he’s awestruck by wherever he finds himself, and Antarctica has reminded me to take the time to listen to and appreciate my own surroundings—as routine as they are these days. v