Summer playlists usually teem with high-energy party music, but nights spent camping under the stars at Joshua Tree or amid the Big Sur redwoods call for sounds more contemplative, organic, earthen. This month has seen the arrival of a few remarkable guitar-based instrumental albums that fit the bill and offer proof that the ideas and experiments of John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Bert Jansch, Jack Rose and others still resonate.
Marisa Anderson, "Into the Light" (Chaos Kitchen). The Portland, Ore.-based guitarist's new album was, according to her notes, "written as the soundtrack to an imaginary science-fiction western film," and features 10 songs that trace the story of "a visitor lost and wandering on the shifting borderlands of the Sonoran Desert."
"Into the Light" is shimmering and cinematic, the pieces built around pedal steel, lap steel and electric piano as well as Anderson's signature guitar sound. Regardless of instrument, Anderson's delicate touch draws languid tones that shimmer less like cosmic twinkles than dew-drenched spiderwebs. "Waltz of the Shadows" creeps along with a noirish, hollow guitar line, with a steel guitar melody sneaking in to add menace. Perhaps best is the record's calming effects. Though never flaccid or soft, "Into the Light" possesses a lightness of touch, a deft empathy, a dreamlike aura.
William Tyler, "Modern Country," (Merge Records). The great young Nashville guitarist earned his early chops as a rotating member of country-politan orchestra Lambchop and David Berman's avant-rock outfit the Silver Jews, but over the last half decade, the instrumentalist has issued a string of terrific records built around his skills as a guitarist.
For "Modern Country," Tyler and his band converged at the Eau Claire, Wis., studio owned by Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver, to work out seven extended songs that roll with rhythmic, almost jazzy momentum.
Some, like "Kingdom of Jones," are brief meditations that recall guitar genius Fahey's pastoral instrumentals. Opener "Highway Anxiety," though, clocks in at over nine minutes. Within that frame, Tyler explores the boundless opportunities within a few great riffs, while drifting from time to time to explore odd structural detours. "Gone Clear" achieves a level of enlightenment that L. Ron Hubbard could only imagine, a multi-movement jam that peaks with Zen-like bells.
Harry Taussig, "Too Late to Die Young" (Tompkins Square). Now 75, the little known Taussig has been playing for decades, so much so that for his new album he felt compelled to place some pretty serious limitations on himself before hitting record. Rather than compose, as is normally the case, with a number of instruments and just as many tunings, the musician committed to a single instrument in a single tuning.
In the notes for "Too Late to Die Young," Taussig said he was rebelling against an age in which references are easy to parse, with old ideas serving as building blocks to create the new. "I believe that Post-Modernism, now almost fifty years old, is due for a re-evaluation," he wrote. "Invention is again possible without obvious references to the past."
At first listen, "Too Late ..." sounds oblong, somehow off, as though each work were built on quicksand. "Above the Mountain's Scarlet Ring" opens with a tentative, dissonant string of guitar notes that tremble with unease. Tempo is unsteady but deliberately so, as if Taussig has devalued a central tenet of American folk music. Just when a song seems to have locked into a theme, the music wobbles, or trips, or spins.
"But as the Riper Should By Time Decrease" never seems to lock into a structure at all. Rather, like a Monet water lily, it dances at the edges of clarity, suggesting a framework but never building upon it. Like everything on "Too Late to Die Young," the beauty lies in a meditative aimlessness. "When people listen to my new music, I don't want them to think of the roots of American Primitive Guitar or other musician/composers," he said in the notes. Instead, added the musician, "I want them to think, 'that is Taussig.' "