I was excited to receive Butterfly Dream and Other Guitar Works, the debut guitar album by Japanese multi-instrumentalist, TOMO. This would be the first work by a Japanese player I’ve written about; I was curious to hear how TOMO’s technique and approach to composition might vary from his American and European counterparts.
That being said, TOMO is no stranger to American guitar traditions, having lived in Missouri during his teens, where he learned finger picking and absorbed a variety of pre-war musical styles. He cites a long list of American guitarists and composers as influences, in addition to Medieval and Renaissance lutists, Hawaiian slack-key players, Middle Eastern and Indian instrumentalists, all of which are paid homage on Butterfly Dream. Continue reading
You’ve been warned by your parents, by movies and television, and now you’re gonna hear it from me : looks can be deceiving. When I first received Marco Panella’s latest, Eastern Landscapes, the press materials made reference to “American Primitive acoustica”, “layered landscapes” and “modal/dissonant jazz” in describing the sound of this LP… these, coupled with the hazy, gorgeous cover photograph, had me absolutely convinced that I was in for some kind of abstract drone-guitar record. As it turns out, both the descriptions and my assumptions were somewhat off-mark. Panella, whose previous work has focused on fringe pop and electronics, is actually a dyed-in-the-wool singer/songwriter, one who melds lo-fi, rock, and loose Americana with an intriguingly skewed compositional flare.
On first listen, many of the songs on Eastern Landscapes play like ragged slacker anthems, mostly thanks to Panella’s deadpan vocal delivery, which strikes me as a mixture of the timbre of D.Charles Speer and Soltero’s dogged tunefulness. Panella isn’t trying to bowl anybody over with histrionics, and there is nary a trace of emotion in his voice on any of this album’s eight tracks; rather, the vocals act more as a base, a mainspring for a series of unpredictable arrangements, song structures and overdubs. Continue reading
Bay area guitarist and composer Chuck Johnson has assembled his fingerstyle guitar compositions into a new digital-only collection called A Struggle, Not A Thought. Chuck is a great picker, and was featured on this summer’s fantastic Tompkins Square compilation Beyond Berkeley Guitar. You can stream the songs on Chuck’s Bandcamp page. You can also read our recent interview with Chuck here.
William Tyler has played on his fair share of notable indie albums. You may have heard him on recordings by Lambchop, The Silver Jews, or as his own solo nom de plum, Paper Hats. Behold The Spirit is not only Tyler’s first release under his given name, but is also his debut full-length for Tompkins Square, and probably one of the finest acoustic guitar records in that label’s catalog… for even though Tyler does his part to carry the American Primitive flag for the always Takoma-leaning NYC label, the Nashville-based guitarist is no mere copyist… his fresh sounding arrangements and confident, variegated technique prove him to be an intriguing picker in his own right.
I’ll dispense with some minor criticisms early: the “experimental” passages? This has become something of a cliche at this point, hasn’t it? It seems that no guitarist under the age of 40 can release an LP that doesn’t contain these sorts of generally indulgent, faceless interludes, and Tyler’s are no more or less interesting than most. From a strategic perspective, I can see the logic in having a tangible connection to the thriving drone scene, as it can add considerably to one’s audience, and provide crucial performance and touring opportunities (see James Blackshaw’s recent US jaunt with Mountains)… and after all, more than a few of today’s finest young acoustic pickers have evolved out of exactly that scene… it’s just that on an otherwise compelling guitar record like Behold The Spirit, hazy, meandering tracks like “To The Finland Station” and “Signal Mountain” feel like little more than filler.
My other (intermittent) quibble with the record is the insistently ambient, room-mic’d production style, or rather, the fact that it occasionally swallows up the details in Tyler’s accomplished and nuanced playing. Third track “Oashpe” begins with some very pretty chord changes, and these are definitely enriched by the dreamy sound… but when the guitar playing gains momentum in the pattern-picking section, it gets washed out by the ethereal production, resulting in the track feeling less urgent and less dynamic. This isn’t always the case, though, and the imposed atmosphere is a nice setting for several of the tunes: it adds some sonic distinction to a Fahey-esque composition like “Missionary Ridge”, which has Tyler searching, like so many before him, for that perfect front porch melody. Do echo chambers even have a front porch? Kidding! Continue reading
by Raymond Morin
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. Continue reading
By Raymond Morin
Well, here we are at the end of “Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Week. I really hope you’ve enjoyed our interviews with all of the great guitarists involved in the project. Today, we finish up with Sean Smith, producer and curator of both the original Berkeley Guitar collection, as well as Beyond Berkeley Guitar, which is out now on Tompkins Square. Sean has developed quite a reputation as a leading light in the new solo guitar movement, and we tend to agree… his full length album Eternal got a great review on this very website, and from talking to many of his Bay area contemporaries (as well as the man himself) I’ve come away with the image of an ambitious and talented, yet warm and friendly young guitarist, truly an asset to the Berkeley guitar scene, and for that matter, to the world of music in general. Sean’s solo “Ourselves When We Are Real” is the centerpiece of Beyond Berkeley Guitar, and in it’s nearly 12 minutes, covers many moods and techniques. Continue reading
Chuck Johnson is based in Oakland, CA. In addition to writing scores for film and dance, Chuck has worked extensively in the fields of modern composition and experimental rock, and also composes very fine acoustic guitar instrumentals. We recently interviewed Chuck about his appearance on the new Tompkin’s Square compilation Beyond Berkeley Guitar, which features new music from seven Bay Area guitarists. Chuck’s track is available as a free download at the link above.
W&W : Please describe the guitar you play on your track, how long you’ve owned it, where you got it.
It’s a 2001 Martin 000-17s. I bought it new in ’01 or ’02 from Elderly, after playing one at a local store (I lived in North Carolina at the time.) The 000-17s is an all mahogany guitar with the older Martin 000 design – 12-fret body, slotted headstock, longer scale and wider neck. It is really fun to play and has a melancholy voice that works well on certain pieces, especially in the open D tunings. Martin ended up only making a couple hundred of them for some reason, and I have played the 000-15s that looks identical and is still available, but it has different bracing and just doesn’t have the same mojo in my opinion. Like any mahogany top guitar it takes a little more work to get the top moving, but I love how the mid-high overtones sing out when you drive it, kind of a lower register than what you might expect from a spruce top. Continue reading