Mark McGuire makes guitar records. In this age of post-everything, it’s almost endearing to find a musician, particularly one without much of a retroactive impulse, who is so readily attached to his chosen craft that his name and the instrument he plays are practically inseparable. Biases against McGuire may depend on one’s biases against the guitar itself. Some, such as this writer, feel that the guitar’s dialectical dominance in the rockist lexicon makes it something of a threat to forward-thinking strands of music. Others may be more welcoming of the guitar’s continued omnipresence. But I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that McGuire’s records sound the best when his guitars sound less like guitars, making A Young Person’s Guide to Mark McGuire a bit of an assorted blend.
The compilation process is prone to produce albums whose very chronology immediately renders them uneven. With the album in question being a collection of tracks from ultra-limited CD-Rs, cassettes, and singles released between 2008 and 2010, one would expect this mix to come out a bit lumpy. Flow is hardly the problem though on A Young Person’s Guide. The cuts from this mammoth double album weave and stream into each other quite elegantly in fact. If anything, the concern with A Young Person’s Guide revolves around how McGuire is to sustain the gushing emotion, particularly the warm feeling of hominess, without coming off like he’s only offering you a warm cup of a milk and a needlepoint pillow.
The discord arrives when McGuire alternates between using his guitar for abstract effects/affects (suffocating melody under drone, using echoes to mimic and multiply the self, and creating unique textures as set dressing for the melodies) and applying the instrument’s traditional strum for more direct folk applications, using it as a carrier for a specific resonance that has more to do with the tool used than the notes played or the sounds produced. In short, McGuire’s more experimental guitar works generally play out fine, but his more rootsy playing feels a bit pat without a significant psychedelic swirl surrounding it.
The album kicks into high gear immediately with the massive 17-minute jam “Dream Team”, a lush soundwavepool of elated fuzz. The name is a bit misleading, though, as there is no team to McGuire. Unlike his ensemble act Emeralds, in which, in true psychedelica form-, there is no individual within the sum of the parts, McGuire makes music by and for a solo player, even if his personal sound is occasionally enough to fill a room.
McGuire makes an artful muse out of solipsism. His last major release, Living With Yourself (also on Editions Mego), featured home-shot candids scrapbooked across the cover and sonic portraits that were pastoral, intimate, and downright gorgeous. The songs here feel similarly personal (and often pretty), but at times McGuire seems to be struggling to connect with them.
In skirting the thin line between coffee house twaddle and genuinely heartfelt yearning, McGuire is still able to lean toward the latter, but it occasionally seems that he is far too comfortable dancing on the edge of the former. “Radio Flyer” has a lightness to it that’s practically twee in its innocence. The tensionlessness of its constant glow is nice, but also more than a tad impotent. And at 10 minutes, it consumes a large chunk of A Young Person’s second disc. “Marfa Lights” is the exact opposite, a slow builder in deep concentration whose drama heightens as the seconds tick. Yet, its affect is all in simple chord changes, like Neil Young’s solo in “Down By the River”, a rocker for the post-rock set.
That paced escalation is kind of McGuire’s bag here and, though he can use it masterfully, one can’t help wondering what Holgar Czukay would make out of chopping and pasting together bits of McGuire’s catalogue and throwing some Jaki Liebezeit percussion under it. For all the delight within the noisy feedback smears that invade the anxious echoplexed ticks of “Flight”, the track feels absent a rhythm to better elucidate its nervous energy. Restrictions become hindrances in this case, which is a hard notion to conceive in a music world of 2011 that could really stand to censor itself more.
Yet, there’s also “Ghosts Around the Tree”, whose piecemeal structure sounds too distracted, rescinding the initial estrangement of buried chants, haunting SFX, and gothy melodies in favor of a more loose and debonair approach. The track actually seems more comfortable in its own skin by adopting the latter aesthetic, but one can’t help wondering what McGuire could have done had he channeled the dark promise of the opening, itself a bit of a departure for McGuire.
This is not to say that there isn’t some “Sick Chemistry”, as one track of mammoth feedback-laced theater organ-sounding drone puts it, that will fondle and massage the eardrum in satisfying ways throughout. Even the most colloquial of riffs can detonate into a frenzy of impressive effects in the course of a measure or in the flicker of a tempo change. Plus, it’s hard to stay mad at an album that is this welcoming. McGuire puts out a lot of music (with this review, we’re already several releases behind). So, compilations of this sort are going to prove necessary, particularly if he keeps up on his current release schedule. A Young Person’s Guide may not showcase all McGuire can accomplish, but it’s a good primer, a young person’s guide if you will, on the kind of things of which he is capable.