Black Eagle Child: Playing
Tyler Higgins: Lonely and Blue
Chuck Johnson: Blood Moon Boulder
Nick(ed) Drake: Wraiths (by Gareth Dickson)
Talk West: Blindsight
Operating out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Scissor Tail Records releases its share of instrumental acoustic guitar recordings, but it's hardly the whole story, as attested to by these six recordings (one a SicSic release). The three full-lengths and three cassettes range across a wide spectrum of styles, with everything from trippy synthesizer experiments and Nick Drake covers to African highlife-styled picking encountered along the way.
Guitar students everywhere could learn a lesson or two from Chuck Johnson. Blood Moon Boulder, his third long-player, suggests he's someone who's reached that stage in his development where he's comfortable enough in his own skin to set ego aside and let the song sing. And that it does to oft-glorious effect on this splendid collection, on which he's credited with acoustic and electric guitars, baritone acoustic lap steel, pedal steel, and electronics and joined on one track by violinist Marielle Jakobsons. It certainly opens on a high when “Corvid Tactics” spreads its bent notes across a desert landscape as sparse and depopulated as the one shown at the start of Paris, Texas. An expert marriage of acoustic textures and slide playing, the piece unfolds in waves of mystical ululations, growing ever more engrossing as turns ever more raga-like in temper—even if a sudden shift into countrified picking occurs two-thirds of the way into the twelve-minute trip. The dazzling fingerpicking displays in “Silver Teeth in the Sun” and “Medicine Map” glisten like rapidly flowing country streams; sombre by comparison, “The Deer and the Snake” tells its tragic tale via steel and acoustic guitars and bowed violin textures. In “Private Violence,” Johnson saves the loveliest piece for last, a serene meditation whose uncluttered wedding of pedal steel and electric six-string makes for the album's most wistful moment. Names like Ry Cooder and Robbie Basho naturally emerge as kindred spirits to Johnson as the recording advances, and each of the six settings conjures a different mood, making for an especially rewarding thirty-seven minutes of music.
That Gareth Dickson has chosen to release a mini-album's worth of Nick Drake covers doesn't come as a total surprise. After all, similarities between the two artists' respective singing and songwriting styles have been well-documented, and, in fact, it was one of the first things noted in textura's review of Dickson's 2009 release Collected Recordings on Drifting Falling. On a half-hour collection of favourite Drake songs, Dickson isn't out to radically overhaul the originals but rather pay homage to the still-adored songsmith. In the spirit of Pink Moon, Dickson opts for the sparest of presentations in the eleven songs, with the sole accompaniment to his voice his six-string acoustic. The results are thus understandably intimate and ideal for late-night listening with the light fading and the world slowing down. On songs like “Free Ride,” “Cello Song,” “Things Behind the Sun,” and “Parasite,” Dickson's acoustic picking is a constant delight, and his hushed murmur while similar to Drake's (never more so than during “Fly” and “Pink Moon”) isn't so similar that their voices can't be easily differentiated between. It's heartening to think that gestures like Dickson's help keep Nick Drake's haunting work alive by pointing new listeners in his direction, and regardless of whether it's Drake or Dickson we're talking about, reveries such as “From the Morning” and “Place to Be” never fail to stir the soul. Think of Wraiths as an affectionate tribute by one humble troubadour to another.
Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Michael Jantz has issued Black Eagle Child material on labels such as Digitalis and Under The Spire for a number of years now; his 2011 Preservation release Lobelia stands out as an especially memorable outing. There's an undeniable playfulness to his aptly titled Playing that goes beyond track titles such as “Zoo Life” and “She Has Funny Hats”; the music itself is often light-hearted and unburdened by anxiety. Like many a Scissors Tail recording, there's a pronounced emphasis on guitar, yet in this case the playing evokes more the spirit of African highlife than Takoma-styled picking. Certainly one explanation for it is the tone of Jantz's guitar playing, which delivers its melodies using clean, distortion-free lines. With his soft wah-wah egged on by a laid-back bass-and-drums combination, a relaxed vibe declares itself from the beginning when “Beach Life” drifts into view like a cool, seaside breeze. Up next, “It is Still Sunny Out” plays like a sunny outdoors hike rendered into musical form when Jantz overlays a motorik guitar base with bright, African-styled melodic flourishes. Elsewhere, “The Magic Book” and “Saturday” ooze a hard-to-resist pastoral charm, and “She Has Funny Hats” tempers extreme wah-wah effects with hypnotic, e-bow-styled textures. Here and elsewhere, Jantz's kinetic guitar lines, which turn many a piece into a spirited walking song, chime with a clear-eyed radiance that quickly reveals itself to be the recording's major selling-point. Only one arguable misstep occurs on this otherwise appealing release: field recordings surface within a number of tracks, but truth be told the material would be better without them; all the extra-musical sounds end up doing is adding clutter where it's not needed.
Much of Tyler Higgins' half-hour cassette collection Lonely and Blue exudes that intimate, lo-fi quality that suggests the material was recorded at home, late at night, with the day's pressures a fading memory. Yet by boldly mixing things up, Higgins surprises the listener in the process: in place of the expected acoustic, he plugs in an electric to inaugurate the recording with “Hot Coffee Cold Beer,” an endearing, blues-soaked reverie lightly tinged with distortion; immediately thereafter, “Like Swimming” flouts expectations even more in presenting a small-group performance that sees smokey tenor sax accompanied by free-floating drums, electric piano, and electric guitar textures. They're not the only surprises: Higgins tears into a smoldering blues with an unaccompanied electric on “Lonely and Blue,” brings colouristic drumming aboard for the acoustic picking exercise “Parking Lot,” and uses a celeste-like instrument and strings to conjure a dream-like mood during “Empty Streets.” Still, as credible as all such vignettes are, it's solo guitar settings such as “Untitled Blues,” “Mixed Violets,” and “After the Rain” that prove the most satisfying for being so unadorned and emotionally direct. The uplifting closer “Scattered Clouds” notwithstanding, a palpable sense of loneliness oozes from the pores of Higgins' material in a way that fully supports the choice of album title.
Similar to the Higgins release, Saskatoon's Kenosha plays like an unassuming collection of explorative instrumental experiments, some song-like in flavour and others more free-flowing. The cassette release unites Evergreen, Colorado duo guitarist Paul Dehaven (of the Denver folk outfit Paper Birds) and cellist Jess Webb (who's contributed to the Lake Mary band) on sides simply titled “A” and “B.” Piano, harmonica, and other instruments also work their way into their meandering constructions, resulting in instrumental settings of no small amount of charm. Though each side is presented as a single, twenty-minute composition, the two are comprised of song-like structures stitched together to form a continuous flow. The impression left is of two individuals holed up in a backwoods cabin armed with an abundance of acoustic instruments, pent-up curiosity and imagination, and enough tools to assemble whatever comes out into a finished product. The second side in particular plays like the earth awakening from slumber and slowly opening itself up to the morning dew and rising sun, though it also includes a jaunty section whose off-beat plucks sounds like Gareth Dickson sitting in with the band. The duo appears to have a particular affection for rustic meditations, which is fine by us—nothing beats the sound of a cellist and guitarist evoking the majestic expanses of the countryside in long-form acoustic-drone settings.Interestingly, though Dylan Golden Aycock oversees the Scissor Tail operation, his Talk West release Blindsight appears on the cassette label SicSic—perhaps he felt its occasional synth-heavy focus rendered it inappropriate for Scissor Tail. No matter: the material, which Aycock recorded between 2007 and 2014, is refereed to as a “(s)oundtrack to a recurring dream” and very much possesses the kind of trippy explorative sensibility we've come to associate with modern-day cassette releases. There are eleven tracks in total, nine of which constitute parts two to ten of “That Dream Again” (for whatever reason, part one doesn't appear). It's the release's understandable focal point but not simply because it takes up the majority of the total time: it also wends far afield stylistically, with many parts inhabiting zones dramatically different from the others. One's a fleeting synth reverie (four), another a mini-soundtrack for a Moroccan opium den visit (five), and others electric guitar-based vignettes (six, eight). The piece's high point, however, is arguably part nine, a lovely floating ambient meditation built from chiming electric guitar and pedal steel. The recording's thirty-one minutes sometimes have more in common with Boards of Canada-styled material than anything fingerpicking-related, especially when synthesizers are used so plentifully in these warbling reveries of pastoral, dream-like design. That being said, there are also a few guitar-centric pieces that wouldn't sound out of place on a Scissor Tail release.