Long Cool World, the fifth LP from Los Angeles-based musician Patrick McDermott’s North Americans project, begins with a plaintive strum, before Portland, Oregon-based Barry Walker chimes in with an expansive, melancholy arc of pedal steel. It is a moment that seems both wide open and completely intimate, gesturing at the hugeness of the natural world, while also taking comfort in the small moments.
As North Americans, McDermott has been experimenting with drone and noise and how it can take shape, and then jettison that shape, since 2013’s No_No, but it’s when he embraced his love of fingerpicked guitar and vintage country music on 2018’s Going Steady that he settled on a sound that felt like a genuine melding of his disparate musical interests. 2020’s Roped In was another creative milestone: with Walker and a host of other collaborators, including harpist Mary Lattimore, and guitarist William Tyler creating a communal, layered approach to each track that felt vital as the world dipped into isolation during a global pandemic. “I knew that for this one I wanted to dial up some of the textures and experimentation,” McDermott says.
In order to do that, Long Cool World, strips away most of the musical collaborators, allowing Walker and McDermott to settle on an approach that is at once intricate and simple, creating hypnotic music that loops and layers, with subtle shimmers of noise or quiet psychedelic freakouts hiding beneath McDermott’s unshowy but emotionally affecting guitarwork and Walker’s pedal steel hum. The duo refined their collaborative relationship as well, with McDermott sending isolated guitar tracks to Walker, who then listened to them while on drives and walks around Portland, before going into the studio with only a loose sense of what he wanted to add to them. Eventually McDermott and Walker came together to record the album, giving the whole thing a sort of free-flowing, naturally collaborative feel. “We were really excited to dig into our own process in a more focused way together,” McDermott says. Walker echoes this sentiment, speaking of how those guitar loops built into a full-fledged collaborative relationship: “There were times when we played the organ together,” Walker says, speaking of the tandem organ drone of “The Last Rockabilly.” “We sat down and it was feeding through the Leslie speakers and we were doing a drone together–it was a lot of instinct.” At its core, Long Cool World is a confident album that finds its heart in deceptively simple moments: the pedal steel cascading over McDermott’s strumming on “Think of Me as a Place” or the quiet burst of noise at the midpoint of first single “Classic Water,” or the warm, drunk wobble of album closer “Bad Box,” are all moments that happily exist on the periphery of the core sound of the record, but take center stage the more you listen. “This music is so simple. I just didn’t feel like I needed more, where my instinct previously was to add more whenever it was applicable,” McDermott says.
Though you may hear plenty of clear influences here—Long Cool World does exist firmly in the American Primitive tradition, after all—there are a few that exist just under the radar, but offer up fascinating context to not just the album’s roots, but how McDermott and Walker think about composition in general: guitar loops repeat until they become abstractions of themselves, drawing inspiration from McDermott’s love of DC hypnotic hardcore experimentalists Lungfish and the delicate compositions of Loren Connors circa Airs. Walker, for his part, draws inspiration from older sounds—Michael Hurley’s deceptively simple guitarwork, Washington Phillips’ zither, the “polyphonic harmonies of the Bosavi and Mbuti people,” and much more. “I draw inspiration from old forms,” Walker says. “Ancient melodies that have tumbled and been rounded in the waters of oral tradition, settled into folk and classical music, and then eroded again.”