"When You Wish Upon a Star." "Black Betty." "White Christmas." "Ballad of Davy Crockett." More than just song titles, they're a litany of generations' worth of bedrock Americana. You probably know these songs, and can maybe even hum the tunes. You probably won't be able to pick out their melodies amid the blurts and clangs of Bill Orcutt's new album, A History of Everyone (Staubgold), though. That doesn't make his music less American, or less bedrock, frankly.
Even in an era lousy with steel-string acoustic guitarists exploring the roots-based, exploration-minded bent that John Fahey pioneered 50 years ago, Orcutt stands out. He comes out of gnarly noise, having co-led the undersung guitar/drums/screaming ensemble Harry Pussy (he still makes a racket on occasion, as evinced by a recent electric duo tour with drummer Chris Corsano, which produced the wriggling live album The Raw and the Cooked). Also, Orcutt favors a guitar strung with only four strings, which he digs into with alternating delicacy and fury.
As first heard on his 2009 debut solo full-length, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, the acoustic style Orcutt woodshedded after the demise of HP felt like a new kind of blues, with none of the corny orthodoxy the genre has devolved to and every bit of the emotional punch. These performances, captured in hissy verite in what sounded like probably his apartment, were stream-of-consciousness, punctuated by yelps and moans, characterized by flurries of frenzied outburst, followed by delicate chords or ticking silence. Without getting too corny about it, they came off like raw expression. You eavesdropped as much as listened to A New Way.
Follow-up How the Thing Sings brought hints of refinement and form to Orcutt's bloody hunks of moody twang. One mercurial track even bore the title "A Line From ‘Old Man River.'" That, a fractured cover of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (released on an out-of-print-in-a-blink single and also uploaded to YouTube, and the advance track listing of Everyone might have indicated a play for some of those neo-old-timey sad-bastard dollars from other quarters. A closer equivalent might be Derek Bailey's late-in-the-going Standards: "versions" of "tunes" in which it's most definitely the singer, not the song.
You might need a forensic musicologist to unearth the melody of "When You Wish Upon a Star" from the track that bears its name here, but Orcutt is nonetheless touching a place as tender, if not at all as winsome as Jiminy Cricket's warbled version. There's no march beat, no triumphalism to "Onward Christian Soldiers," though there is perhaps a whiff of Salvation Army mission cot in this forlorn rendition of the old hymn, augmented by Orcutt's Glenn Gould-like vocalizations. Likewise, there's considerable cold, cold ground evident in the ruminative album-ending "Massa's in the Cold Cold Ground."
Not as explosive and abrasive as some past recordings, but by no means a safe sop to musical tradition, A History is likely to either repel or glue itself to your turntable. But to be sure, right now, in our lifetimes, Bill Orcutt is doing his part to revolutionize an instrument most thought incapable of new tricks. Don't pass by at least a listen.
The Necks' new album, Open (Northern Spy), likewise finds the Australian extendo-improv trio modifying their attack to create something that nonetheless only they could. If you're not familiar—and thanks to the group's appearance at Big Ears in 2009, Knoxvillians have less excuse than residents of most other American cities—pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton, and drummer Tony Buck perform lengthy improvisations streamlined into epic quasi-compositions by preternatural sync and a certain collective sensibility. No squeaky-boinky free-improv here: 1999's sleek, propulsive Hanging Garden echoed the techno of the era, while recent albums such as 2011's Mindset have offered denser suites of varying pulse and texture.
The Necks have scarcely ever had a quick say in any of their musical endeavors. Concerts and recorded pieces both tend to top an hour, uninterrupted. Open represents their longest single recording (68 minutes) and yet, in a way, it feels like their first album of songs. Not that there are any clear breaks in the single track (here's a band that still loves CDs), but Open appears to explore a series of musical ideas that interrelate, and possibly progress, rather than an overarching idea or motif.
Abrahams' plangent piano arpeggios and Buck's bells begin in an invocational air. A tambura-like electronic buzz rises, Abrahams drops out, and Buck holds his own with perhaps the least show-offy drum solo in recorded history. Abrahams surges, and retreats, and various other drones and hisses return and fade—sometimes a keyboard, sometimes Buck's cymbals or snare, here and there what sounds like a violin and a guitar. And just when you're feeling a bit lost, Abrahams takes up a set of emotional piano chords, fingering them like prayer beads, as tambourines and shakers invoke and underline some kind of breakthrough, some dawning sun of musical nirvana. It's quite something, and it's clear that, whatever their approach from year to year, the Necks have plenty left to explore.