My, what one can do with a nylon-string guitar these days. Originating from the simple concept of two classically trained players taking a stab at melding all sorts of disparate musical genres, Acoustic Alchemy has, over the past two decades, augmented and refined the formula to such an extent that it is now solidly in possession of a “signature sound,” something many groups yearn for but never truly attain. At this very high point in the band’s arc of commercial and artistic success, it’d be easy – and possibly deserved – for it to rest on its laurels throughout its 13th album, American/English.

By way of disclosure, I’ve been enjoying the work of Acoustic Alchemy for around 15 years (no exaggeration). While some may see this as a possible journalistic integrity-compromising bias on my part, I’d also be the first to tell if the band was performing below par. Good news, then, that its latest release not only keeps its head above water but provides several standout tracks unlike anything else in the existing Acoustic Alchemy canon.

Ever since the group’s reformation in 2000, it’s leaned toward a more elaborate, heavily produced sound. Whether the change was for the best has been a point of some contention among fans, but when it comes down to it, no amount of flashy keyboard or horn work can drown out the astonishing technical mastery that, provided by guitarists Greg Carmichael and Miles Gilderdale, will always constitute the kernel of Acoustic Alchemy’s music.

For example, those familiar with the band’s subdued, low-key sound of the late 1980s might well be shocked to hear the likes of “So Kylie,” a tribute of sorts to the dance cuts popularized by the titular Aussie pop star. Nevertheless, the record wouldn’t sound totally unfamiliar. Carmichael has always been big on laying down at least one reggae track (see AA’s first big hit, “Mr. Chow”), and here, its “Trinity” puts a slightly unusual spin on that admittedly narrow style. Any way you look at it (well, hear it), the Steely Dan pastiche “She Speaks American/English” will prove to delight music geeks, a label this reviewer tends to wear proudly.

Though they’ll probably never replicate what they were in the good old days, the Acoustic Alchemy of the 21st century is nevertheless irreplaceable. No longer feeling the need to prove themselves and having scaled back from the sprawling feel of their last few albums, it appears that, with American/English, the group members have found a fine comfort zone in which they’re free to play from whichever musical angle pleases them at the moment. Let’s hope that continues.
[Colin Marshall proudly displays his music-geek badge proudly by taking it to the next level: Colin’s Bachelor Pad on KCSB .]