Defending the Acoustic
There are things that electric guitars just can’t do. I’m not attacking the instrument, mind you, that would be hypocrisy considering the instrument’s dominating presence in my record collection, but there is a certain subtlety and complexity to an acoustic guitar that the instrument’s electric cousin cannot match. An electric guitar makes noises seemingly detached from any sort of visible physical process, that is both its strength and weakness as an instrument, but every note from an acoustic guitar corresponds with the actual sound of a string being physically plucked. Usually acoustic guitars are the domain of singer-songwriters and folk singers, following simple song structures that do little to remind the listener of the power of the instrument. Still, there are plenty of performers who have used unusual compositions and experimental techniques to draw attention back to the old-fashioned wood and string guitar. Harris Newman is one of the latest in a long line of these instrumentalists to expand the boundaries of the instrument, and he has potential to be one of the best.
Newman’s Accidents with Nature and Each Other is something of a journey, as suggested by the titles of two of its most successful tracks (“Lake Shore Drive” and “Driving All Night with Only My Mind”). It begins in relatively familiar domain with “The Butcher’s Block” where Newman assaults his instrument with absolute ferocity; it sounds like it could be the work of either a single guitar or dozens playing at once. At this point, Newman seems to be working in the Leo Kottke mode: Newman borrows Kottke’s fast tempos, his love for ingratiating melodies that repeated in slightly altered form each time around, and his uncanny ability to turn the guitar into a string and percussion instrument at the exact same time. The next two tracks follow in this vein, but Newman changes his approach, going for atmospheric noodling right when the listener is expecting a Kottke-esque rave-up. This change causes the music to sound strangely unsettled, giving the album a sense of dark clouds approaching.
“It’s a Trap” is the next number, and Newman isn’t just quoting Admiral Ackbar for the fun of it. The first songs get the listeners comfortable, and “It’s a Trap (Part 1)” is designed to blindside them. “It’s a Trap” is a bizarre collage of unrecognizable sounds like what new age music must sound like to a person on a bad trip. Aided by Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Bruce Cawdron on glockenspiel and percussion, “It’s a Trap” falls in the crossroads where folk music and post-rock meet, with the ghost of John Fahey smiling in the background.
An entire album of “It’s a Trap” would be interminable, even for GYBE Fans, but Newman recognizes this, only following through on its extremes in the short “It’s a Trap (Part II)”. The rest of the album finds a middle ground between comforting moments of acoustic beauty and unsettling moments of atmospheric dread. “Lords & Ladies” and “Out of Sorts” have Newman playing the guitar like it were a sitar, with patterns repeating over and over and over again, only broken when the slight differences between each repetition escalate and, without the listener’s conscious realization, push the song to a new direction. These two songs, probably the best on the album, build and build on this energy, growing with suspense until finally just coming to a sudden halt. Cawdron’s drumming on “Lords & Ladies” pushes Newman into a thundering climax where just two men replicate the same overpowering intensity of the entire Godspeed You! Black Emperor collective.
Every album needs a good closer, but Accidents With Nature ends on a cliffhanger, with the eerie but calm “Driving All Night with Only My Mind”. The album, as a whole, with its driving intensity and atmospheric forebodings, has had the markings of a soundtrack for an isolated midnight drive, and this is made explicit with this last song. An intoxicating mix of spooky lapsteel guitars and unearthly glockenspiel, the almost jazzy “Driving All Night with Only My Mind” takes Newman’s approach to new extremes. When Newman hits the frightening and powerful main riff and just keeps repeating it until the end of the song, it’ll make you forget why you ever thought the electric guitar was cool.