I first became aware of Dubliner Cian Nugent when his solo guitar contributions to Imaginational Anthem Volume Three and We Are All One, in the Sun: Tribute to Robbie Basho appeared in back-to-back years.¹ Both recordings evidence clean, confident playing and command of the freeform, open-tuned style that continues to prevail in today’s acoustic guitar underground. Cian’s debut album, Doubles, was released earlier this year by VHF Records, joining a recent string of excellent guitar-oriented albums issued by the label, including Jesse Sparhawk & Eric Carbonara’s Sixty Strings and Alexander Turnquist’s Hallway of Mirrors.
One cannot help but ponder the meaning of the album’s title, “doubles.” Simply stated, it is a symmetrical work, in that it pairs together two side-long pieces that mirror one another structurally and musically. On both sides, series of improvised passages comprise two primary movements that repeat, resulting in a loose, “ABAB” form. Additionally, for each work Nugent establishes a vocabulary of intervals and melodic phrases built from adjacent tones and half-tones. The resulting “duplicitous” voicings provide the album’s primary musical themes as well as the constant sensation of push and pull. I could go on! Let’s just say the “doubles” motif gives the work a dimension beyond pure emotion, which I found somewhat unique for a freeform guitar album.
The A-side track of Doubles, “Peaks & Troughs,” opens with a series of ambiguous chord washes and picked intervals. Cian renders these with painstaking patience, highlighting the negative space between figures and affording breathing room to the complex ringing that trails off of the competing tones. This “ringing” is magnified not only by Cian’s tendency to build intervals with open and fretted notes, thus exploiting slight variances in the guitar’s intonation, but also by the close-in, hyperrealistic quality of the recording, which captures the performance in a manner that could only have been imagined in previous eras. A prime example occurs around a trio of notes that Cian rides, almost obsessively, roughly twelve minutes in… granted by this point the guitar is coming out of tune, contributing to the effect! The initial pass of the first movement features another notable moment, in which a droning, single-note figure is joined by a simple, walking bass line, similar to Nugent’s Basho Tribute track, “Odour of Plums.” It’s a simple technique that, properly juxtaposed as it is here, produces a dramatic effect. The second movement of the piece commences with a passage of routine exotica. Even though Nugent plays it well, this style has been overused to the point that it sounds pretty old-hat. Fortunately he doesn’t linger, transitioning into a lovely chord progression that sounds particularly sharp during the second pass.
If I’m not mistaken, the B-side track of Doubles, “Sixes & Sevens,” is titled after the intervals presented in its opening theme: D-B-C-D, i.e. root, major sixth and minor seventh. The pairing of adjacent, in this case sixth and seventh, tones sounds dreamy compared to the destabilized, diminished vibe of “Peaks & Troughs.” The theme is articulated with arpeggios that blossom at the outset of second movement into an exhilarating folk melody, in which Nugent’s guitar blends with a perfectly-arranged ensemble of percussion, viola, clarinet, flugelhorn and trumpet. When I heard this for the first time I was blown away… I found it to be both joyful and utterly refreshing. The repeat of the second movement subdivides into a series of three variations, including a beautiful reprise of the horns late in the piece.
Long-form solo guitar works like those on Doubles never cease to amaze me… the ability of a player to sustain a believable level of performance over an extended length of time without pause implies a level physical endurance, as well as craftsmanship, that should always be commended. That said, it seems only natural for longer pieces to have lulls that challenge one’s patience; they are, after all, intended as an honest representation of an artist struggling to find his or her way through an idea, which is not always entertaining, at least in the conventional sense. That being said, Nugent’s work seems to reside somewhere in between, and assuming he continues to present long-form pieces, I think he has a good chance to distinguish himself from his peers. Some of the techniques presented on Doubles: the ensemble presentations, the cultivation of bass lines that go beyond the standard alternating patterns, etc. are indeed very entertaining, and beg repeat listening. After acquainting myself with Doubles, I read the press release from VHF and was pleased to find Nugent acknowledging Jim O’Rourke’sBad Timing LP as an inspiration. It’s a fitting reference, since the work on Cian’s album reminded me right off the bat of Gastr Del Sol: the organ drone at end of “Peaks” is signature O’Rourke/Grubbs; and “Sixes” echoes their track, “Dark Horse,” from Camoufleur. Clearly, Nugent is a player of great promise. I look forward to hearing where his ideas take him.
¹ “When The Snow Melts And Floats Downstream” appeared on Imaginational Anthem Volume Three (Tompkins Square) and “Odour of Plums” appeared on We Are All One, in the Sun: Tribute to Robbie Basho (Important Records).