Tag Archives: Tompkins Square

Review : Cian Nugent “Doubles” LP/CD (VHF Records, 2011)

cian_DoublesI 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. Continue reading

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Review : James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg “Avos” LP/MP3 (Tompkins Square, 2011)

AvosLife is full of funny coincidences, isn’t it?  Exactly a decade ago, I was playing guitar in The Higher Burning Fire, something of a chamber-pop group that (by my influence) dabbled with folky and fingerpicked guitar patterns.  In the middle of a full-band relocation from Kansas to New York City, I received an interesting phone call from our drummer, already in the Big Apple – “I met this guy, he’s really cool, he’s gotta be in the band…  you’ll love him, he plays just like you!”  My excitable drummer must have somehow forgotten that I also played just like me, and that I was but one of the three more-than-competent guitarists in our band… a fourth guitarist?  Did it really matter what he played like?  His mind was made up, though, and I took the whole thing as a sign that maybe I didn’t want to carry on with the band any more.  “They’ll be fine, no shortage of guitarists there!” They did the New York thing (for a little over a year) and I found my way up to Boston.

Can you tell where I’m going with this?  That mysterious fourth guitarist was none other than Nathan Salsburg, freshly arrived to NYC from Louisville and working for The Alan Lomax Archives, a post that he holds to this day.  When I went back to New York a little while later to see what my former band mates had been making of themselves in their adopted home, I found Nathan to be not only a great guitarist but a sweet guy as well, and we hit it off talking about Bert Jansch and Scott Walker.

Fast forward about seven years… the band had long broken up and gone our separate ways, and I had devoted myself almost exclusively to acoustic guitar music.  I picked up the fantastic third volume in Tompkin Square’s Imaginational Anthem series and saw who else but Nathan listed among the artists on the back of the disc.  His standout track “Bold Ruler’s Joys” was not only one of the disc’s (and series’) highlights, but was one of the most compelling and confident acoustic instrumentals that I’d heard from any of the current generation of young fingerpickers.  Nathan didn’t play “just like me” at all, he was worlds better, in a league of his own!  I quickly got a message to the man, and we started keeping in touch regularly.

Over the last couple of years, Nathan has been sending me some of his works-in-progress, mostly next-level fingerstyle jams named after race horses… for he has moved back to his native Louisville, and the Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras combined down there!  Last year, I began hearing from Nathan about another project, a guitar duet record involving a guy named Jim from Chicago.  Jim turned out to be James Elkington, of The Zincs and The Horses Ha, who also turned out (by yet another coincidence) to be the drummer for Brokeback, a Chicago group led by the legendary Doug McCombs (he of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day). I’ve shared a bill with Doug many times in the last few years, since he and my duet partner Dave are old friends from Dave’s Chicago days. It’s a small, small musical world folks, and it’s only getting smaller… but this back story and all its little coincidences could not have led to a more exciting moment, and now I have the great pleasure to review James’ and Nathan’s stellar debut Avos. Continue reading

Review : Nick Jonah Davis “Of Time And Tides” LP/CD (Tompkins Square, 2011)

NJD - sleeveTompkins 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

Interview : Sam Moss

SM on Building 1I first became aware of Sam Moss’ playing via Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem Vol. 4.  Sam fit right into that album’s Takoma-leaning tracklist, and much of Sam’s music that I’ve heard since has had a pronounced American Primitive approach…  his double-thumb, spare melodies and pretty pattern picking not only invoke the music of John Fahey and Peter Lang, but also modern-day interpreters of the genre like Glenn Jones and the late Jack Rose.  I recently caught up with Sam to talk about his new release, Eight Constructions.

W&W : Talk about how you got started in music, some of your early influences.

Most of my early influences came from the music my family listened to. My early memories involve Marvin Gaye, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mozart and Benny Goodman. My parents are big music appreciators and my grandfather loved big bands. The joy he got from listening to Goodman, Count Basie or Artie Shaw was one of the main reasons that I wanted to play music. He was an artist and he used to have a cymbal in his studio so that he could keep time while blasting his records! I initially wanted to play the clarinet, but I ended up with a violin in my hands.

W&W : When did you first start playing acoustic guitar?

When I was something like thirteen. I favored electric for a long time, until I got into jazz a few years later. I started exploring the possibilities of solo acoustic playing, fingerstyle, etc, a few years ago.

W&W : Please describe your primary guitar, how you got it, how long you’ve had it, etc.

It’s a Tacoma DR12, made sometime around 2000, before the company was bought by Fender. I picked it up used a few years ago at a Guitar Center. Almost all the Tacoma’s made around that era have a finish flaw on the back and sides that causes little air bubbles to spread all over. Mine has it really bad and the finish is chipped all around the sides and is continually getting worse. Tacoma makes a pretty ugly guitar to begin with and the finish issue really puts it over the top. But it’s a great sounding dreadnought and the price was right… it has character. Continue reading

Interview : William Tyler

Late last year, we reviewed William Tyler’s excellent Tompkins Square debut Behold The Spirit. I recently caught up with William to talk about the making of the record, how he got into guitar, and his upcoming tour with Michael Chapman.

W&W : Talk a little about how you got started in guitar… how long have you been playing, what got you started, and your early influences.

Well I had the benefit/burden of growing up in Nashville, both around a lot of older musicians and a musical family. My father is a country songwriter and he was drawn to Nashville in the mid seventies, back when country singers bragged about smoking pot and reading books, as opposed to now when it’s all about trucks and patriotism.

I started playing guitar when I was a teenager, in spurts at first because I was more interested in drums and piano. I was also somewhat of a late bloomer when it came to rock music; I didn’t start buying rock records until I was fourteen or fifteen. Early stuff that influenced me was REM and Peter Buck, especially all the cross picking he did, the country style stuff in Rockpile and Dave Edmunds, and then stuff like the Sex Pistols and Ramones. I think Physical Graffiti was the first record I heard where I wanted to pick out an open tuning. Continue reading

New Music : Chuck Johnson “A Struggle, Not A Thought”

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.

Review : William Tyler “Behold The Spirit” LP/CD (Tompkins Square, 2010)

william-tyler-behold-the-spiritWilliam 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