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Bill Orcutt - How the Thing Sings

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Artist: Bill Orcutt

Album: How the Thing Sings

Label: Editions Mego

Review date: Sep. 20, 2011

When Bill Orcutt, former guitarist for legendary hardcore act Harry Pussy, returned to recording in 2009 with A New Way to Pay Old Debts, it set off a significant buzz. Not only was he back, but he was playing solo — and acoustic. The album made numerous year-end lists (including mine as the best record of the year), because it not only sounded unlike all the other solo acoustic guitar records coming out, but also because it was different from just about most other records coming out -- period. (Dusted scribe Adam Strohm hits on a lot of what the record does well in his take on the Editions Mego re-release).

But two years on and a narrative has fossilized around the record, and Orcutt’s approach in general, that limits how we understand just what it is he is up to (a distressing critical phenomenon these days — see the way most reviews of Emeralds records end up rehashing the same kosmische descriptions for just one example). Upon the release of Orcutt’s second solo long-player, How the Thing Sings, it’s worth considering just what is myth and what is reality when it comes to Orcutt’s music.

  • Myth #1: Bill Orcutt is an innovative guitarist.
  • Reality: It’s hard to call pulling two strings off your guitar and detuning it so it will stay in one piece innovative. If Orcutt’s solo releases are "about" anything, it’s about turning innovation, guitar technique, even any idea of progress at all, on their head. Why else, on his debut album, would he literally turn a picture of those poster boys of guitar wankery, John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, upside down? Orcutt’s angle is to make it OK to search out a personal Year Zero for the instrument that doesn’t involve pyrotechnic displays or conventional ideas of advancement and development. It’s what he seemed to do when he re-emerged after a decade away from music; it’s also what he seems to do from moment to moment in any given piece. The gaping pauses he inserts between phrases on How the Thing Sings‘ “The Visible Bosom” and title track feel like he’s buying time, evaluating what he just did, deciding if it’s any good, before he goes on. Sometimes he continues with the same train of thought; sometimes he changes direction completely. This isn’t technique on display. It’s more like improvised self-analysis in musical form.

  • Myth #2: Bill Orcutt is re-examining the blues and folk guitar.
  • Reality: You mean you took the title of his 2010 one-sided LP, Way Down South, with its Muddy Waters cover image, at face value? The reference is hemispherical, not historical. (The record was recorded at a live performance in New Zealand.) In case you didn’t get the joke, the cover of How the Thing Sings is filled with Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar picks. Hardly a rootsy influence there. In an interview, he even admits that his modified guitar makes playing a lot of traditional scales and chords, including blues licks, pretty difficult. Sure, some of his wild string bends and blistering sprays of notes might echo the blues, and his wordless vocalizations could be compared to, say, Blind Willie Johnson, but any resemblance is superficial. His rhythms are too fragmented, his dynamic swoops too wide and too unpredictable to be comfortably lodged alongside most of the American folk and blues tradition, which relies to a large extent on a relatively narrow band of mood and technique for effect. To drive the point home, Orcutt opens this album with the minute-long fret-scrabble of “No True Vine,” a statement of sovereignty if I’ve ever heard one.

  • Myth #3: More people should play guitar like Bill Orcutt.
  • Reality: Please, no. His style is a totally idiosyncratic one, arrived at for personal, mostly practical reasons. It’s impossible to replicate, and not because it’s somehow technically difficult. It’s just his. Just like whatever connection his interpretation of “A Line from Ol’ Man River” has to the original song by Jerome Kern and Roger Hammerstein III is entirely in his own head, so does his playing fail to link up in any obvious way to any kind of tradition. If anything, what we should take from Orcutt is his obstinacy, his sheer force of will in the way he approaches his chosen instrument: Do it your way, in your own time, with what you have at hand. Anything more is cheating.

    By Matthew Wuethrich

    Other Reviews of Bill Orcutt

    A New Way to Pay Old Debts

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