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Michael Chapman - Time Past Time Passing

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Artist: Michael Chapman

Album: Time Past Time Passing

Label: Electric Ragtime

Review date: Oct. 29, 2008

Like many of the songs on Michael Chapman’s Time Past Time Passing, “Dewsbury Road/That Time of Night” can be divided into two pieces. The first, either a long introduction or a separate but related composition, is a delicate web of picked guitar, serene, sunny and unhurried. The second, starting at about three minutes, introduces Chapman’s voice, a dark-toned, rasp-edged instrument that immediately turns the mood darker. The song changes when he starts singing, like a country lane suddenly turning into a shadowy forest. “You know I don’t scare easy….but I do get scared,” Chapman intimates at regular intervals as the song proceeds, in the kind of voice that raises the hairs on your forearm. It’s as if Chapman made Robert Johnson’s deal at the crossroads, but traded his voice, instead of his soul, to the devil.

Chapman has, of course, had a lifetime to hone both his guitar and mic skills. He is a 40-plus year veteran of the British folk scene, a contemporary of Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, Davy Graham and others. Though not as well-known in the states as some of his peers, he recorded four highly regarded folk albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the Harvest label (best known for its association with Pink Floyd): Rainmaker (1969), Fully Qualified Survivor (1970), Window (1971) and Wrecked Again (1972) From there, he moved to a Decca subsidiary called Deram, and onto a series of smaller, more specialized labels. Time Past Time Passing, on the label Electric Ragtime, is his 36th full-length. Although billed as “all new material,” it should more accurately be called previously unrecorded material. The songs themselves come from various periods within his four-decade artistic career, as far back as the 1960s and as recently as last year.

Time Past Time Passing showcases Chapman’s instrumental abilities in a handful of all-guitar cuts: the slide blues nod to the master in “Fahey’s Flag”; the lilting, finger-picked “Little Molly’s Dream”; the oddly percussive, gamelan-tinged “Caddo Lake.” There are also some fairly straightforward verse/chorus song structures, as in the ragtime-y “Sometimes.” But the most stunning compositions here are, like “Dewsbury Road/That Time of Night,” a combination of songcraft and guitar playing, often split right down the middle.

Consider, for instance, opener “A Stranger’s Map of Texas/The Twisted Road,” with its haunting, over-hanging harmonics, and its placid flourishes and thickets of notes. Chapman’s voice, coming in about halfway through, barely rises above a whisper. It is harsh and lovely in the tangle of guitar picking, murmuring hard truths against the grain of the tune. Or consider the very Fahey-esque “In the Valley,” with its meditative flourishes and long reverberative pauses, all guitar for almost two minutes. Yet when Chapman begins to sing, in a hard, blues monotone, the song turns itself inside out. Its flowery beauties subside. Its underlying melancholy comes forward. “Here I sit…slightly blue,” intones Chapman, and the song, too, has taken on a whiff of mortality.

This is the kind of album you could only make in your 70s. A lifetime’s skill is required to play its difficult motifs. Only decades on the road could burnish a voice to this degree of exquisite roughness. Life leaves a mark.

By Jennifer Kelly

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