Dibson T Hoffweiler: When I Went West
Scott Tuma: Hard Again / The River 1234
Western Skies Motel: Prism
Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Scissor Tail Records has developed a reputation for issuing era-transcending acoustic folk music (“experimental cosmic cowboy folk” is how the label describes it), and the new releases by Dibson T Hoffweiler and Scott Tuma will do little to change that. Western Skies Motel's Prism is also a guitar-based recording, but it parts company from the others in its more classical-minded presentation.
As I listen to Hoffweiler's When I Went West, the word story-teller springs repeatedly to mind. Certainly song titles such as “April in the Berkeley Rose Garden” and “The Farewell in the Chicken Shack” do little to argue against that impression when they suggest short story-like narratives all by their lonesome, and that the Oakland, California-based musician is able to accomplish that with nothing more than an acoustic guitar in tow says much about his songwriting ability. He's not, incidentally, new to the scene but rather someone who spent eight years in New York playing in a number of contexts, as the lead guitarist in psych collective Huggabroomstik, for example, and as the quasi-leader of the psych-folk outfit Old Hat. But When I Went West presents forty-four minutes of Hoffweiler alone and as such is as pure and personal a portrait as could be imagined.
As mentioned, each of the eight songs seems to have a story to tell. Bright picking and a breezy jaunt intimate that the “German Wedding Journey” is in all likelihood a joyful one free of strife and anguish. “Major Arcana XIII,” on the other hand, calls to mind the image of a weary war-time admiral casting his gaze upon a smoke-strewn battlefield littered with bodies and wryly reflecting on the lives lost. Hoffweiler's well-developed melodic sensibility is evident throughout but perhaps nowhere more affectingly than during the wistful ballads “The Farewell before Candlestick Park” and “The Tub at the End of the World.” While the album isn't approached by Hoffweiler as an opportunity to showcase his technique, his guitar-playing skills are nevertheless in abundant supply, with a piece such as “Fire 204” making a strong pitch for his fingerpicking gifts. His considerable technical ability is never used for self-indulgent purposes, however, but always in the service of the song.
A substantial amount of Scott Tuma music is presented on Hard Again and The River 1234, which together total eighty-two minutes (the first originally appeared in 2001 and the latter two years later, both on Truckstop). Though the two releases are structurally different, with the former featuring nine tracks (all but one song-length) and the latter four extended pieces, they're less dramatically different on compositional grounds and thus constitute a natural whole. Hard Again isn't entirely a solo affair, as the one-time Souled American guitarist is joined by Jim White (Dirty Three) and Michael Krassner (Boxhead Ensemble, The Lofty Pillars), resulting in guitar-based (acoustic and electric) settings fleshed out by organ and percussion.
A ten-minute tone-setter, Hard Again's aptly titled “Beautiful Dreamer” unfolds laconically, with layers of acoustic guitars advancing at a sleepy crawl until a wheezy pipe organ appears to reinforce the timeless folk vibe. To describe the mood as relaxed and unhurried hardly captures it: Hard Again is music that moves at its own ultra-meditative pace, indifferent to any modern-day pressure to speed things along. It's also a ragged kind of music whose rough edges and meandering feel only add to its appeal; in fact, there are moments here that call to mind Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas soundtrack, not the well-known opening theme, however, but rather Cooder's treatment of the traditional “Canción Mixteca.” Tuma songs such as “March,” “First Spring,” and “Your N Baby” exude a similar kind of peacefulness and naturalness, as does the stirring waltz setting “Drums Midway.” If there's a piece that distances itself furthest from plainspoken acoustic guitar-styled playing, it's the closing “Sermon” in the way its crystalline organ textures and electric guitar drones form a hymn-like reverie filled with mystery and magic.
Like Hard Again, The River 1234 opens with a ten-minute piece of slow and peaceful comportment, though in this case the first of four untitled settings adds banjo to the acoustic guitar and organ mix. A harmonica's wail bolsters the lonely, Old West spirit of the second setting, giving it the feel of music played late into the night around a dying campfire (the harmonica even appears to draw melodically from “Silent Night” at one point), and harmonium eventually enters the fray, too. With its focus on guitar-generated textures, the third highlights Tuma's ambient soundscaping side, while the opening part of the droning fourth recasts him as a psychedelic dreamscaper. If anything, the material on the second album might be even more relaxed than the first, and it also gives the impression of being more of a solo recording than the other.
Across the ocean lies Preserved Sound, which issues recordings of modern classical and ambient material from its home base in Krakow, Poland. Just as Preserved Sound is geographically distant from Scissor Tail Records, so too is the guitar style of Western Skies Motel (Danish guitarist René Gonzàlez Schelbeck) stylistically removed from that of Hoffweiler and Tuma. Similar to theirs, Prism, Schelbeck's debut full-length under the Western Skies Motel name, is a forty-three-minute collection of minimalist solo guitar pieces (recorded live, and most of it composed spontaneously), but the style in this case is primarily contemporary classical.
The album's classical tone is established immediately by Schelbeck's predilection for mantric arpeggios, elegant patterns that animate the songs with an insistent, flowing lilt. In the omnipresence of its repetitive patterns, the recording tangentially calls to mind Glass-styled minimalism, while the spidery timbre of the strings suggests a Flamenco connection. Schelbeck also applies 3rd bridge, an extended playing technique associated with experimentalists such as Harry Partch, Keith Rowe, Fred Frith, and Glenn Branca, to give his music harp- and even sometimes gamelan-like qualities. By way of illustration, the appropriately titled “Sparkle” evokes the image of sun-generated reflections glistening off of a water surface, but it's hardly the only piece to produce such an effect. The pattern-based style of West African music also surfaces, in particular during the cyclical movements of the title cut.
If there's anything to argue against the recording, it's that it relies too heavily on arpeggios, as almost every piece deploys them (“Different Paths” stands out as especially refreshing for the fact that it uses a different rhythmic foundation); a more varied presentation would have seen Schelbeck work a larger number of non-arpeggiated settings into the album. That aside, he obviously chooses his titles with care: “Winter Men” exudes the kind of melancholy familiar to anyone who's had to suffer through an overlong winter, while the sorrowful tone of “Towards an End” is conveyed by a descending melody that's consistent with its title. In general, as one absorbs his Western Skies Motel material, it becomes increasingly clear that Prism is likewise aptly titled.