The pedal steel guitar is music's accent mark: In country, it sighs and moans, matching a singer's despair with notes that hang in empty, desolate space. Or it can shoot up in quick little licks, dousing a bucolic beat in flammable spirits. In rock, it's a gilding texture, filling space with a tone that's less blunt than an organ and more nuanced than a six-string's predictable moves. The well-played pedal steel is often sterling, rarely the star.
Raleigh quartet Starmount, though, builds around the wispy steel lines of longtime producer and bandleader Greg Elkins. Crafty drummer Brian Donohoe decorates the basic meter with tricks lifted from Sunny Murray and experimental dance music; upright bassist Dave Pitts eases his rich notes in, letting them out slowly, like exhalations in a snowstorm; and tasteful electronics controller Rob Davis adds textures that bubble up from the surface, assuming the pedal steel's normally undercover role. On Starmount's 10-track debut, the resplendent Tyranny of the Sphere, these roles coalesce beautifully.
Tyranny is more of a surefooted first step than an innovative introductory leap. Subtly arranged and exquisitely played, it proves that this quartet has both the skills and the smarts to push steel-led instrumentals beyond curio status. Elkins' lines are as memorable as they are elegant: "Daylight Dies" sits coolly in the distance, for instance, its lean melody as comfortable surrounded by a glow of electronics as it is gliding through Donohoe's late-arriving beat. Alternately, "Crispy Hexagons" is wiry and anxious, Elkins' steel canvassing Donohoe's manipulated drums and a keyboard's icy washes with mercurial variations.
Though there's nothing wrong with these 47 minutes (perfectly enjoyable, without qualification), the presiding placidity makes for a listen that feels a tad circumscribed. You want Starmount to push the driving parts harder or to dive deeper into their drift (which they do on the pharmaceutical closer "Bud"). Perhaps those noise bursts on "The Battle of Brentwood Creek" could fight a bit more vigorously, or perhaps "The Constable" could capitalize a bit more selfishly on the climax that slips past its grasp. Or perhaps Starmount could just make another record, since, on their debut, muted and subtle wonders intrigue so often.
Starmount plays Nightlight Wednesday, Nov. 11, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $5.