It seems avant garde guitarist and improvisational firebrand Bill Orcutt may be mellowing in middle age. Where before his music often bordered on the unlistenable as it clashed and thrashed against any traditional notion of structure and melody, he now seems content to work within an established framework. Ever the avant gardist, however, he sets out to destroy said framework from the inside out, scattering the myriad fragments and sonic shards within a barely contained space.
As he did on Twenty Five Songs and A History of Every One, Orcutt once again ventures into the overcrowded waters of American popular song. Long a favorite of artists in nearly every style, it serves as a recognizable base from which performers can build and create something in their own image. Where some remain faithful to the source material, others throw the rulebook out the window entirely, dismantling and deconstructing the songs until they exist in name alone.
Were you to refrain from glancing at the track listing, you would never know the entire program was made up of well-known American standards. Unlike Derek Bailey, whose later-period creative reinterpretations of jazz standards on both acoustic and electric guitar remained largely true to the basic melodic theme while strangling assorted notes on the fretboard, Orcutt’s approach is one of clanking and clanging dissonance that occasionally resolves into fascinatingly obtuse sustained tones and discordant chord voicings followed by extended sections of contemplative beauty and space. Only occasionally do small snatches of familiar melodies filter through the gentle, structured chaos, most apparently on his measured, stately take on “Over the Rainbow”. Like Bailey, he dances around the melody without spending much time stating it in its original form. In addition to making each wholly unrecognizable, it lends a fresh air of originality to a collection of otherwise staid standards.
“When You Wish Upon a Star” is a cacophonous confluence of clattering chaos wherein notes ping-pong off one another seemingly at random, the melody barely escaping within an inch of its life. And yet Orcutt still allows for space, refraining from simply thrashing away on the fretboard and allowing tones to linger, playing off one another long enough to resolve into something new and different.
Exploring a series of upper octave sustained notes atop a varying drone, “The World Without Me” features some of Orcutt’s most frenzied and exciting playing, all tempered with a contemplative streak that adds an element of melodicism and phrasing. Having taken a more nuanced and thoughtful approach, Orcutt’s playing here hews somewhat close to Bailey’s approach to the familiar, yet remains highly indicative of his particular playing style. The way in which he wrenches the simple melody of “White Christmas” from the sturm und drang of of his constantly vibrating strings shows his ability to transcend chaos with a subtly stated melodic theme that comes swirling out of the mass of free-falling notes.
And while his “Star Spangled Banner” will never be the generation-defining statement that was Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance, it, like Hendrix’s, is clearly a product of its time. The melody becomes strangled and fraught — much like our current social and political climate — occasionally opening up into passages of great beauty before once again crashing back in the raging tumult. It could just as well serve as the new National Anthem under the ham-fisted Trump regime. A calm after the storm, Orcutt largely plays the final bars straight, allowing the last note to ring out, decaying into the hiss of his amplifier. As his first solo electric foray in the studio, Bill Orcutt offers a fine, surprisingly accessible entry point into this most idiosyncratic of guitarists.