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
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
In June, Work & Worry interviewed Oakland-based guitarist Ava Mendoza as part of its week-long series celebrating Tompkins Square Records’ new Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation. Ava’s contribution, the ebullient “Regional Redwood Park Blues: Between Hay and Grass” is one of the collection’s highlights, sounding rather exotic in context with the other, more contemplative entries. Ava studied classical guitar technique while growing up, then traditional music theory at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and modern classical/electronic theory at Mills College in Oakland. Her formal musical background will come as no surprise to anyone hearing “Regional Redwood” for the first time, given its sophisticated chord movement and voicings. Yet, Ava plays with a sense of wonder, a sort of illusory naiveté, using a gritty-sounding, amplified Gibson ES125, exaggerating bends and ripping through runs with abandon. This dichotomy between sophistication and sense of wonder is in full bloom on her new solo guitar album, Shadow Stories. 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