I recently became aware of an intriguing new series of limited-edition LPs by a California label called Vin Du Select Qualitite. The Solo Acoustic series features a few marquee names (Thurston Moore and Chris Brokaw are probably the most well known) as well as some up and coming pickers. Many of these recordings aren’t strictly acoustic, with several of the players employing delay and looping effects, pickups et al, and the liberal overdubbage in evidence can sometimes stretch the term “solo” pretty thin… but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The packaging of these albums is consistent and simple: each disc features a white sleeve with a single-color, guitar related photo. The spartan design sense and the limited availability of these records are reminiscent of many of the privately pressed guitar albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In this article, I’ll give short reviews of the first six VDSQ LPs, some of which are already selling out of their initial runs. If you’re interested in any of these releases, I encourage you to act fast… these have “collector’s item” written all over them!
The first volume, by Joshua Emery Blatchley, is a solo acoustic album in the traditional sense: one man, one guitar, no effects. The style here is a familiar one, with Blatchley’s persistent double-thumbed octaves and front-porch melodies evoking the “American Primitive” style made famous by players from John Fahey to Jack Rose. Though Blatchley is proficient in this style of playing, his compositions have a tendency to run long, and throughout the album there is a lot of repetition in tempo, dynamics and structure. A lot of records like this have come down the line in recent years, and I would rate this one as solid, but average.
Volume Two is more indicative of the experimental, post-rock direction that many of the subsequent discs in this series take. Were it not for the guitar depicted on the sleeve, Mark McGuire’s entry would be hardly recognizable as a solo acoustic album at all… it sounds reminiscent of an early ‘00s Kranky release, or something from Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner’s delay-intensive solo catalog. All in all, I found it a refreshing change of pace from the current neo-traditionalist scene. McGuire has a knack for texture, and his compositions are both pretty and hypnotic.
For me, Chris Brokaw’s guitar work on Volume Three easily stands head and shoulders above the rest of this series. Over the last 20 years, Brokaw has been a driving force in a handful of prominent indie bands, namely the beloved trio Codeine and Boston’s Come. On this LP, Brokaw uses his twelve-string to conjure a variety of moods, from the enchanting, quasi-mariachi “Out My Window”, to the driving blues of “Spy Pond”, to an instrumental reimagining of his song “Blues For The Moon” (by special request of Steve at VDSQ.) Brokaw brings a certain worldliness to this record that I find very exciting, and unlike many of the other players in the series, his compositions have both sophisticated melodies and chord movement, and aren’t beholden to the rhythmic rigidity of looping/delay effects or anchored by alternating-bass drones. Some of the most interesting acoustic guitar music I’ve heard in a while.
Matthew Mullane’s Volume Four is a dynamic and contemplative album. The two extended improvisations cycle determinedly through a variety of picking patterns, melodic fragments and riffs… Mullane is an inventive improvisor. The more meditative stretches remind me very much of the “free raga” style associated with the late Robbie Basho (and now being practiced, wonderfully, by former Basho student Rich Osborn.) There is an uncommon clarity to the improvisations here, a seemingly intense level of concentration… or at least that’s what it sounds like to me! After the Brokaw disc, this is probably the next one I would recommend.
Thurston Moore is behind the wheel for Volume Five, and I’ve got to say that for me, it was a pretty massive let-down. When I first heard about this LP, and about how it was a collection of 12-string meditations in tribute to the late Jack Rose (of whom Moore was a tireless, early champion) I expected some real magic. After all, some of Moore’s solo records of recent years, though in the singer-songwriter vein, have had a nice emphasis on acoustic guitar-driven songs, and I probably don’t need to remind anyone of his trailblazing guitar work in Sonic Youth… but in my opinion, Volume Five is instrumental guitar music, and “out” music for that matter, at its worst: out of tune, out of time, self-consciously jarring, and well, quite boring. I didn’t know Jack Rose very well, but part of me thinks he would appreciate the rebellious, no-rules approach of this batch of tracks… and that’s probably the whole point. If you’re looking for something more in the vein of Jack’s music, check out Volume One… but if you’re a fan of solo guitar at its most defiantly dissonant, this will be right up your alley.
Allen Karpinski’s Volume Six picks up threads found in the McGuire and Brokaw discs, and opener “High Altitude Headache” is almost an exact blend of the former’s looping approach and the latter’s ethereal, electrified-acoustic tone. There are some nods to minimalists like Derek Bailey, but overall, this music is anchored to the plaintive sound of late ’90s bands like The For Carnation and Rex. The persistant electrified signal, which sometimes gets overdriven and downright gnarly, keeps this album from ever really feeling “acoustic”… and certain artifacts caught up in the looping process, string squeeks and such, can be quite prevalant and distracting… but 13+ minute closer “The Midwest – Great Plains, The Rust Belt, and Great Lakes” is ambitious in scope, and features some nice changes in dynamics and texture, and some welcome acoustic slide playing.
The overall goal of this group of albums seems to be presenting the private language of the acoustic guitar… each of these records feels like it was created in a uniquely intimate, lonely setting. There isn’t a lot of new ground being broken here, but as stated, the general approach of experimenting with the limits of the instrument, applying rock motifs and techniques, and bucking tradition is not an unwelcome one. I would recommend Chris Brokaw’s Volume Three very highly to almost anyone, but for fans of art rock and especially ’90s indie, there is a lot to like about the VDSQ Solo Acoustic series.