Josh Nelson's Exploring Mars was one of the very best things to come out in 2015. The pianist's ode to the science and stories of the Red Planet was an imaginative network of wild magic and scientific precision. The music was light on its feet and given the space to wander freely, but each note was a concise step in a clear direction. That lyrical focus is missing from his 2017 release The Sky Remains, but Nelson still summons up plenty of the magic that made Exploring Mars so damn special.
Opening track "Bridges and Tunnels" captures the essence of the Mars release. The melodic contours and the rhythmic flutters emit a liveliness that seems without end, but like a bird bounced along the currents of a winter wind, the fluctuations in elevation and speed are always framed in the context of the stiff breeze. Unfortunately, it isn't a quality that sticks throughout. Some of this may be the result of the album's focus. The Los Angeles native has penned an homage to his city, built upon a foundation of its architectural marvels, changing landscape, the people who called it home and their dreams that shaped it. This sprawling array of thematic inspirations is the kind of thing that can understandably lead to meandering imagery. The expressiveness of the music often follows suit.
Kathleen Grace returns for some guest spots. Her vocal contribution on "How You Loved Me On Mars" led to one of the prettiest tunes of 2015. The magnetism of title-track "The Sky Remains" proves that her talent at syncing up with Nelson's vision is no one-time thing.
Some tracks forge paths through conventional jazz territory, sometimes to the point of toeing the border separating straight-ahead jazz from pop music. The balladeering "Ah, Los Angeles," the South Pacific shake and shudder of "Lost Souls of Saturn" and a cover of Elliot Smith's "Pitseleh" aren't anything that would be considered a fatal flaw, but they detract from the dreamy atmosphere for a tone grounded in normalcy.
But those are tepid criticisms of an album that burns bright. Nelson is a site favorite, and his newest is yet more evidence of why.