Tompkins Square has had a few homerun records in the last year… William Tyler’s spellbinding Behold The Spirit, and the Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation would be indispensable acoustic guitar albums in just about any era, but are definite standouts in today’s fuzzy, post-everything musical landscape. The label’s winning streak quietly continues with Nick Jonah Davis’ proper debut, Of Time And Tides.
Davis, though young, is not a completely new name on the underground acoustic scene. The Nottingham-based guitarist was featured on Imaginational Anthem Volume 4, and also had a digital release called Guitar Music Volume 1, both distributed by Tompkins Square. His playing on those records, though competent, was more or less indistinguishable from any of the other Fahey-channeling pickers of recent years, on either side of the pond. On his new album, though, Davis shows a fast-maturing compositional sense, and a welcome willingness to subtly expand on Fahey’s oft-imitated American Primitive style… and though there are a number of American sounding, boom-chick tunes here (such as the short and sweet title track) I feel that Davis more and more is letting his Englishness shine through… always a good thing! Continue reading →
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! Continue reading →
There is a pervasive tenseness that roams among the 16 guitar instrumentals that make up E. Ryan Goodman’s Halves. The music, never joyful nor despondent, informs the listener that this inner struggle is a necessary and permanent one linked to the human experience. A distinct lack of melodic predictability and the often-wandering rhythms enhance the uneasy drift of these tracks. The music unfolds in no discernible pattern and like unwrapping a crumbled ball of paper, there are creases and folds throughout. Melodies collide atop one another, lines intersect at seemingly random moments, structures are askew and the aural landscape is distorted. The tunes here are slow-moving meditations that thread the needle between consonance and dissonance, the harmony of the music illicits neither smiles or sadness while remaining surprisingly pleasant to listen to.
The music approaches an evenness in tunes like the ironically titled “Melancholy Boogie” and “When Past is Present”, but these momentary states of grace are only diversions from the koan this album explores with an uncommon persistence. This isn’t to say that the musical statements Goodman seems to be making on this record are either confusing or unclear. The perpetual ambiguity of modality is not a set up for transcendental wizardry, as so many guitar mavens today attempt with blatant un-artistry, but seems more like an honest sojourn of one man and his instrument fumbling through a set of unfamiliar keys, trying to unlock the door of his own house. A card that Goodman plays with humble effectiveness is that many of the tracks here show a good amount of humor, and it is this self-removed perspective that renders the entire work with honesty and humility. This is not a guy who takes himself too seriously, though he approaches the work with dedication. One listen to “Through Bramble”, a defiant and out of tune arpeggiated workout, proves that there are more dimensions to be found in the guitar beyond the stoic and reverent.
In many ways, the record is an inner-facing struggle to reconcile some unspoken problem, a spiritual dilemma never stated to the listener. Each track begins at the moment when some imponderable question is volleyed into the void without preamble, and ends gracefully without an epilogue. It is this bare-bones composition technique that is so appealing on Halves. What we witness is pure process at work, the churning gyrations of the mind as it solves problems, searches for equilibrium and ultimately accepts the impossibility of finality or definition. What sets this album above many contemporary six string auteurs is that it feels like an authentic effort to dig into new, personal territory for the artist and not simply an effort to mystify and buffalo an uncritical listener.
This month, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop reissues two albums from the Kicking Mule Records catalog: Happy Traum’s American Stranger (1977) and The Bert Jansch Conundrum’s Thirteen Down (1979). Happy Traum and Bert Jansch are each singer-guitarists who launched careers during the sixties folk revival in the States and Britain, respectively. American Stranger and Thirteen Down provide glimpses of their work in the late seventies, an era when many folk singers were trying their luck at the introspective and potentially lucrative singer-songwriter market. Both men share a sophisticated approach to the guitar that, for each, distinguishes a repertoire of songs. Presumably, this is why both ended up releasing at least one record with Kicking Mule (a label specialized in guitar music), and also why I’ve opted to write about the reissues together.
In a BBC radio broadcast spotlighting Happy Traum, Grossman remarked:
“The sign of a truly great guitar player is not how complex he can play but, rather, that the sounds he produces are music… the forte of Happy Traum is that he can take a blues and arrange it in a rather simple fashion to produce a very lyrical and moving and very musical performance.”
The tunes on American Stranger bear out Grossman’s sentiments… clear and deliberate folk and blues guitar playing highlights the collection, and elevates Happy’s unaffected if somewhat plain-sounding vocal delivery. A variety of contributors, including John Sebastian on harmonica, lend accompaniments throughout, subtly building on Traum’s performances. Continue reading →
The ants were talking to us. They had been for weeks. If only we were even moderately fluent in Ant. They knew what was coming and they weren’t mucking about. Headed for the high ground – eggs in tow. Infiltrating our every potted plant on the upstairs balcony. A constant stream into the kitchen and straight for the pantry. Not a hint of aggression, this wasn’t an invasion, it was a purposeful and orderly relocation – essential. They were shouting at us. Louder than the goldfish shouts some mornings once it’s certain that we’ve forgotten that it’s well past piscean breakfast time. Not aggressive, but somewhat desperate. The juggling eggs of the worker ants were the formicidaic semaphore flags that we just weren’t reading. Then it rained. It rained constantly. The ground reached saturation point. It kept raining and there was no place for the water to go but downhill. Then the river slowly rose and the city flooded. Bull Sharks were spotted swimming down the freeway and as inundated houses were abandoned and disappeared below the brown tide many domesticated carp were, perhaps happily but involuntarily, reintroduced to the wild. My street being on high ground was spared, thankfully, and as I watched the city drown from my front yard I listened to a collection of music entitled Desolation Happiness by Jameson Swanagon. Continue reading →