This review will be the first time that I’ve covered two releases in one piece of writing. Oftentimes when I’m reading a music magazine and come across a “combined review” I get just a little irritated, usually expecting one album or the other to get shortchanged, or that the writer must not have felt that either recording was important enough to warrant its own review. I can assure you that in this case, both releases are equally deserving of discussion. I’ve decided to review them together not because of their similarities (though those will be touched upon) but for their differences, which I find to be very interesting indeed.
Both Hand Made Music and Imaginational Anthem Vol. 4 are collections of new compositions and explorations for the acoustic guitar. The former was released earlier this summer, not by a label proper, but by J.R. Rogers, the founder of The Acoustic Guitar Forum, a large online community of guitar enthusiasts, builders, dealers, etc. IA Vol. 4 will be released on September 21st by Tompkins Square, a folk/guitar/jazz/archival music label that readers of this website are probably pretty familiar with by now. The performances across both discs are all instrumental, and most (though not all) feature a single guitarist, playing some variant of fingerstyle. If you aren’t a follower of guitar-oriented music, or aren’t a guitarist yourself, then there’s a good chance you won’t recognize a single name from either disc… to quote Duck Baker, the path of the acoustic guitarist is “a tough row to hoe”, and alas, obscurity just seems to go with the territory… but it’s the way that these guitarists approach that vague idea, consciously, unconsciously, and sometimes even self-consciously, that makes comparing these releases a worthwhile exercise.
I’ll start by talking about Hand Made Music, and by pointing out the clever double-meaning of its title : as stated already, the compositions are mostly fingerstyle in approach, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a few flat-picks were being employed, such as on the crystal-clear runs in Don Fransko’s overdubbed self-duet “I Am”. The title also illustrates the general concept behind the collection, which is that every piece was performed on a hand-made, luthier-built guitar — in other words, no Gibsons, no Martins, no factory-made instruments allowed — and the instruments’ builders not only made the choices of which particular guitars would be used, but also the players who would perform on them. It’s an interesting idea, albeit one that would be of little interest to non-guitarists… that said, there are some obvious benefits for the casual listener, namely that these are all incredible sounding instruments, and in pretty much every case, paired with a world-class player. If you’re going to set out to make an acoustic guitar record, it doesn’t hurt to have all the right tools, does it?
So all guitar geekery aside, what about the music? There’s a pretty broad spectrum of fingerstyle, well, styles on display here. There are a few notable nods to the traditional : Derek Coombs’ opener “Three Steps To Joy” lands, quite nicely, somewhere between the classical ragtime style of David Laibman and singer/songwriter/guitarists like Ralph McTell and John Martyn. Bill Pilmore’s brief “Squirrel Run” is a straight-up modern rag that sounds quite fresh, yet also effortlessly evokes that genre’s classic, joyous bounce.
Bill Pilmore – “Squirrel Run”
Aside from these traditional-leaning tunes, and a few excursions into classical territory, the remainder of the tracks on HMM could probably be broadly described as contemporary fingerstyle, in the lineage of players like Will Ackerman and Tommy Emmanuel, or the later work of someone like Pierre Bensusan or Peter Finger. I know it sounds a bit vague, “contemporary fingerstyle”, but for the purposes of this review, I could define it as an approach to acoustic guitar playing that is compositionally adventurous, and one that regularly delves into exotic tunings, advanced playing and modern recording techniques, and a certain kind of no-borders musical worldview. “Progressive” is of course a loaded term these days, but much of the music on HMM is just that, especially when viewed from a compositional standpoint… and while a couple of these tunes do teeter on the brink of a noodly, new-age aesthetic, that’s definitely not the overall feeling. Tracks like J.P. Webster’s harmonic-rich “Wildwood Flower” (performed here by Doug Young) and James Filkins’ “Autumnal Equinox” are patient, impressionistic-seeming works at first, but actually overflow with important musical details and nuances. These pieces can be equally enjoyable to listen to attentively, or to just get lost in, and their mix of melancholy and understated virtuosity can be found on many of these tracks.
Other HMM highlights include Tom Lockwood’s fleet-fingered “Lillooet”, and the short duet “Snow Day”, which features album producers J.R. Rogers and Steve Reinthal, jamming like old friends over a couple of easy going chord progressions. The production is a little slick on this one, but I do enjoy the interplay between these players.
J.R. Rogers & Steve Reinthal – “Snow Day”
Hand Made Music, a concept album in the literal sense, is like a breath of fresh air… with music that is pretty much devoid of pretension, broad in scope, and a participating group of builders and players who live, breath, and share an obvious love for the acoustic guitar.
Aaaaaaaand in this corner, the venerable Tompkins Square label, who made a major impression on the acoustic guitar world with the first three installments of its Imaginational Anthem series. Those volumes were first released individually, and are now also available as a boxed set, subtitled “Essential Guitar”. Essential isn’t nearly strong enough a word to describe the wealth of music contained on those discs, and if you haven’t gotten them yet, I would recommend them very highly. Players from every corner of the acoustic guitar world are represented, from 60’s legends like Max Ochs, Peter Lang and Bob Hadley, to unsung heroes like Richard Crandell, to modern masters like James Blackshaw, Kaki King, Brad Barr and the late Jack Rose… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So with the reputation of the series firmly established, and the release of the boxed set implying some amount of finality to the project, I was a little bit surprised when I found out that a fourth installment was in the works. I wondered how label mastermind Josh Rosenthal would approach this new collection, whether there would be some change of format, and whether it could ever measure up to the first three. Well, IA Vol. 4 has a subtitle of its own, “New Possibilities”, and all of the guitarists presented here are relatively young and current… and like the players on Tompkins Square’s other guitar collection from 2010, Beyond Berkeley Guitar, several of these instrumentalists have ties to the worlds of experimental music and underground rock.
In my opinion, the tagline “New Possibilities” is not only incredibly generic sounding, but as a quasi-mission statement, well off the mark. Don’t get me wrong, there is some fine picking on this collection, but there is a palpable absence of new ideas. What’s more, there is a certain self-awareness, bordering on self-consciousness, to the performances on this disc that I find difficult to ignore. What might have been a new chapter for the endlessly Takoma-referencing Tompkins Square label turns out to be, with little variation, more of the same.
To be fair, there are ghosts about, and many are the usual suspects; Max Ochs’ original song “Imaginational Anthem” (from the first volume of the series) was a tribute to John Fahey, and as we’ve seen time and again on guitar albums of recent years, Fahey and his Takoma Records stable continue to cast a long shadow over the modern underground scene. On this disc, his presence is felt most keenly on Tyler Ramsey’s “Our Home Beyond The River”, which is very well played, and distinguishes itself from the other tracks by its more roomy production style.
Tyler Ramsey – “Our Home Beyond The River”
Echoes of a young Will Ackerman (yes, I know he’s not dead) can be heard in the opening moments of Nick Jonah Davis’ reflective and very pretty “San Cristobal De Las Casas”, as well as in William Tyler’s “Between Radnor And Sunrise”. These songs both start and finish with lovely melodic motifs, but unfortunately, both pieces soon devolve into wandering, repetitious pattern-picking. Tracks by Sam Moss and Aaron Sheppard are American Primitive by-numbers, and neither player approaches the form with much imagination or personality. Mike Fekete’s “Birds on the Lake” is filled to the brim with dextrous triplets, but the composition is long on motion and short on movement… the lack of any real emotional build-up or release feels like the musical equivalent of running in place. C. Joynes’ “Jemmy Steel” (a jig) and Pat O’ Connel’s “Song For Eugene” (a rag) add a welcome bit of variety to this collection, but neither of these songs could be considered a major achievement.
IA Vol. 4 does have it’s moments : I would be remiss not to mention album opener “Paranoid Cat”, by experimental Philadelphia guitarist Chris Forsyth. This track stands apart from the rest of collection, not being a solo guitar piece… instead, Forsyth’s insistent acoustic melody is laid over a bed of oscillating synth chords, with a cinematic grandeur that reminds me, sonically at least, of David Grubbs’ 90’s and early 00’s work. Aurally, “Paranoid Cat” is easily the most exciting track on the album, and being the first, seems to put the others at a disadvantage!
Micah Blue Smaldone’s ragged-but-right bottleneck piece “Rose March” can only be a tribute to his recently departed old friend, Jack Rose. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time that Micah has presented his slide playing on a solo recording, and this non-fussy little melody makes for an interesting day-trip from his usual somber, stately ballads. Though he would never admit it, Micah is quite the technically gifted player, and like Jack Rose, he plays the slide with determination, intonation and soul.
Micah Blue Smaldone – “Rose March”
I think it’s worth comparing these two releases because of the interesting contradictions that come to light : HMM was conceived by a slightly older generation of players and craftsmen, men who probably don’t consider themselves part of any sort of acoustic vanguard… yet on the whole, their music is far more energetic and original than that on IA Vol. 4, an album whose sole mission is to spotlight some of the leading lights of underground guitar. The guitarists on HMM nimbly rise to the occasion, with performances that are complex, nuanced and musically exciting, while the young guns of IA Vol. 4 seem to be satisfied with convention… self-consciously beholden to the alternate tunings, compositional structures, and stylistic calling cards of a handful of players who came before them. Josh Rosenthal might’ve thought this one was in the bag when he settled on the list of musicians to be featured on IA Vol. 4, but from a listening standpoint, it seems he’s only done half of the job. It’s the lack of quality control, settling on so many inarguably average tracks from some otherwise amazing players, that keeps it from being a very rewarding collection.