If you have happened to spend any amount of time inside an MRI machine (as this writer has), you’ll know it’s not a particularly comfortable experience. Claustrophobia is almost guaranteed, as your body is ushered into a tiny, cramped tube where patients are instructed to lay impossibly still for as long as the gigantic magnet and coils rotate, whine, and grind around your body. If you’re lucky, and your particular imaging orders don’t require otherwise, some MRI machines are equipped with music through magnet-safe earbuds (“What Pandora station would you like to listen to today?”) or, in one rare case for this writer, Netflix was projected through a series of relayed mirrors to allow Parks & Recreation to appear within the machine.
MRI machines are loud, and the noise is not particularly pleasant. Bumping and squealing and repetitive clunks and bangs become like a sound bath, as your brain attempts to make sense of the cavalcade of random noises. Some patients pick out sounds and gibberish syllables from the noise (I often hear “DAD! DAD! DAD! DAD! DAAAAD!”), while others simply let the cacophony wash over them hypnotically. Others cannot help but be swept away by the adrenaline-boosting, horror film-esque atonal soundtrack.
On his brand new solo album, Ravine Palace, Grammy-nominated fiddler Christian Sedelmyer (Jerry Douglas Band, 10 String Symphony) proffers a gorgeous alternative to that soundtrack. “Brain Scan” is a tune that certainly calls to mind the prerequisite din of an MRI machine, but with slippery bowed chromaticisms and Sedelmyer’s signature musical wit — plus a healthy dose of joy, something often suspiciously absent from radiology departments. Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange) on mandolin, Eli West (Cahalen Morrison & Eli West) on guitar and clawhammer banjo, and Clint Mullican (also Mandolin Orange) on bass follow along with rapt attention, combining the detail-affixed listening of chamber music with the sly lilt and energy of old-time.
Even while the foursome toys with the dissonant themes of the melody throughout the tune the aesthetics here will always be more palatable, enjoyable, and irresistible than a gigantic piece of magnetic medical equipment — no one is surprised, here — but “Brain Scan” still captures the anxieties, uncertainties, and inevitabilities of such a procedure uncannily. In a package any listener would be happy to encounter, whether through scan-safe earphones or not.