By Raymond Morin
Ben Reynolds is a member of the Scottish folk-rock band Trembling Bells, who are currently making a name for themselves on the European circuit. They’ve recently appeared at the yearly Green Man Festival, have a new record out on Honest Jon’s, and every press bit that I’ve seen has made mention of legendary producer Joe Boyd’s affection for the group. Not too shabby!
Mr. Reynolds busies himself with a great many projects, and has amassed a deep discography of noise and improvised recordings on such labels as Last Visible Dog, Strange Attractors Audio House, Beyond Repair, Dancing Wayang and others. The venerable Tompkins Square label tapped him for the third installment in their indispensable Imaginational Anthem compilation series, and this summer the label quietly released How Day Earnt Its Night, an instrumental acoustic guitar record and Reynold’s highest-profile solo outing to date.
Upon listening to the album and digging deeper into his back catalog, it’s clear that Reynolds has many interests, and that being associated with a a single style isn’t one of them. Thus, there is a little of everything on How Day Earnt Its Night… and though the recording quality is warm and clear, and Reynolds is a more than competent picker, there is a certain lack of direction that keeps many of these tracks from being home runs.
The songs generally fall into two categories : shorter, British Isles-flavored vignettes and extended Takoma-inspired explorations. Opener “Skylark (Scorner of the Ground)” takes the former approach, as Reynolds easily picks through some pleasant, stately figures. Though nothing revolutionary, the songs in this style are some of the best on the album, even if tracks like “Risen” and “England” rely more on the moods that they evoke than on any concrete melodic ideas. Reynolds builds most of these British-style songs around a simple alternating-bass with hammer-on riffs in the high strings, generally falling back on picking patterns and ignoring the harmonic possibilities in the chords’ middle voices. “Kirstie”, as lovely as it is, repeats the formula one last time, feeling a little like a song waiting for a singer.
Ben Reynolds – “Kirstie”
Most of the remaining tracks move in a decidedly more American (Primitive) direction, and the results are, sadly, a little underwhelming. “Death Sings” is bargain-basement Takoma, borrowing liberally from the vocabulary of John Fahey but adding nothing new to the conversation. “The Virgin Knows” is an over-long bottleneck dirge, piling on almost nine minutes of hammer-ons and meandering slide riffs, but never really going anywhere. Reynolds tries to channel Lightnin’ Hopkins on “All Gone Wrong Blues”, but the tune’s recycled blues runs and ever-present harmonica make for a pretty tedious listen.
The wild card on this collection is definitely the title track. “How Day Earnt Its Night” is the album’s centerpiece, sitting somewhat conspicuously between two of the aforementioned British-style tunes. “How Day…” opens with haunting three finger triplet-rolls on the high string, filling in over the course of the next few minutes with stark harmonics and staccato melodic fragments. The results are really pretty enchanting, reminding me of the hammer-dulcimer compositions of one of Reynolds’ soon-to-be-tourmates, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tamburo. Reynolds drops in some downtuned bass-note melodies, coloring the piece harmonically and adding more tension, before the still-blazing triplets are unceremoniously cut off around the eight-minute mark. The breakneck pace slows, and Reynolds noodles somewhat aimlessly for the remainder of the song… a disappointing anticlimax to what began as a very engaging and promising piece.
Ben Reynolds – “How Day Earnt Its Night” (excerpt)
I’ve got a few discs from Reynolds’ back catalog on their way, and am looking forward to seeing him live this autumn. While How The Day Earnt Its Night lacks originality, it does present Reynolds as a restless and intriguing picker, with both solid technique and an internalized knowledge of a few beloved acoustic guitar styles… and because Reynolds stands to grow exponentially as both a player and a composer, I plan to follow his progress closely.