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Bill Orcutt, "Bill Orcutt"

cover imageLike many, I picked up Bill Orcutt's self-released solo guitar debut (New Ways to Pay Old Debts) back in 2009 and was completely floored by its idiosyncratic primitivism.  There was nothing on earth quite like it, as it captured visionary art in its rawest, purist form: Orcutt was a virtuosic dervish violently attacking a four-string acoustic guitar, howling and moaning along when the mood struck him.  It sounded positively feral.  It also sounded like it was composed spontaneously and recorded into a boom box (it was even periodically disrupted by ringing phones and passing trucks).  In a perverse way, it was almost too perfect–I never got around to picking up any of Orcutt's follow-ups on Editions Mego because it seemed like there was nowhere to go from the demonic possession supernova of his first salvo.  As it turns out, I was wrong about that, as Orcutt has spent the ensuing years moving in a more melodic direction.  This latest release is a culmination of that evolution, as Orcutt picked up an electric guitar, headed to an actual studio, and recorded a suite of originals and standards.  If that sounds tame, it is not: Orcutt's biting and percussive renditions of chestnuts like "When You Wish Upon A Star" are every bit as explosive as I would want them to be, but the (slightly) stronger emphasis on melody goes a long way towards making Orcutt's vision a bit more conducive to repeat listening.


It is not hyperbole to describe Orcutt’s solo guitar style as unique, as he often sounds like he is clawing and snapping at the strings in a white-hot rage, unleashing sharp and disjointed flurries of notes.  In fact, he often sounds a hell of a lot more like a free-jazz saxophonist than a guitarist in his approach, though his chosen weapon provides a percussive, visceral bite rather than a primal howl.  Remarkably, Orcutt already had quite a distinctive and influential style back in his days with Harry Pussy, but his solo career sounds he went to hell and back in the interim and returned as a completely transformed artist.  Obviously, the thread linking the two eras is that Orcutt is quite noisy and averse to conventional chords and melodies (understandable, since his guitar is still missing two strings), but Orcutt's solo work is intense and intimate on an entirely different level.  On this album, however, some fragmented melodies do manage to dance and dart through the pointillist storms of notes, particularly in the opening "Lonely Woman." It is apparently based upon the Ornette Coleman piece, but it seems to have just as much in common with Horace Silver's noirish torch song and Orcutt comes closer to meeting the latter halfway, weaving a slow-moving, melancholy melody with plenty of soulful vibrato. It even sustains a kind of perverse beauty and dignity when it erupts in flurries of wild pull-offs, tremolo picking, jarring chords, and violently snapping notes, which is not true of some of the other standards here. For example, I would have a very hard time recognizing "Star Spangled Banner" in the squall of sharp twangs and vibrato-heavy double-stops of Orcutt's version if I did not already know the song title.  The same is quite true of "When You Wish Upon A Star."

It is an interesting choice that Orcutt devotes so much of the album to feel-good songs with immediately recognizable melodies, since he generally transfigures them into something unrecognizably ecstatic and visceral.  There are even two Christmas songs, one of which (a brief rendition of "White Christmas") stands as one of the Bill Orcutt's legitimate highlights, as snatches of the melody keep unexpectedly bursting forth from an otherwise blues-y reverie.  It is one of the more tender and nuanced pieces in this suite and beautifully highlights Orcutt's genius for making individual notes cut through the clangor and feel meaningful.  Elsewhere, Orcutt's meditative interpretation of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is another beautiful stand-out, hewing quite close to the melody in a way that feels movingly wounded and precarious.

Orcutt’s sole new original piece, "The World Without Me," is also quite beautiful, as he seems to treat his own melodies with a bit more reverence than he does elsewhere.  In fact, "The World Without Me" actually feels like the perfect distillation of Orcutt's aesthetic, as it is fundamentally a warm, languorous, and lyrical piece that only erupts into scrabbling flurries of notes for emphasis (as opposed to a frenzied, twanging cacophony with occasional glimpses of melody).  Orcutt's other original ("O Platitudes!" from his VDSQ album) is quite fine as well, resembling an electrified homage to classic bottleneck blues that periodically veers off the rails into gnarled and twanging crescendos of frenzied picking.  The line between standards and originals is amusingly blurry and almost completely irrelevant throughout the album, as the originals feel like standards and the standards are frequently fragmented into unrecognizability.  I imagine it all just depends on which melody Orcutt was idly playing around with before a piece began to take shape into a fully formed tour de force.

Uncharacteristically, I cannot find any flaws at all with this album, as it is the most accessible version of Orcutt's brilliance that he possibly could have made without sacrificing anything important (though I do admittedly prefer the sharper attack of his acoustic guitar).  The clear production and the absence of Orcutt's strange and wordless vocalizing does not so much soften his sound as merely clear away any possible distractions from the volcanic display of four-stringed virtuosity taking place. Also, Orcutt's increasing emphasis on melody provides a welcome grounding for his more outré displays: I certainly love the noisy bits, but they are always better and more meaningful when they emerge from an oasis of comparative musicality.  This is simply a great album from start to finish.  I am sure I overuse the word "visionary," but it is entirely warranted to say that Bill Orcutt is a goddamn visionary who deserves every bit as much reverence as John Fahey.  Granted, Fahey's legacy is far more influential than Orcutt's will ever be, but the two artists have a similarly radical and anachronistic body of work.  The main difference is merely that Fahey's backward-looking American Primitivism spawned plenty of imitators while Orcutt’s razor-edged brutalism is unlikely to spawn any descendants at all, as it presents an absolutely impossible act to follow.