'Odds Against Tomorrow' Is Bill Orcutt's Fascinating Return to Original Compositions
With Bill Orcutt's new album, Odds Against Tomorrow, the uniquely gifted experimental guitarist gets back to basics with a collection of bracing, angular solo music.
Odds Against Tomorrow
11 October 2019
It's hard to say whether or not there's a specific reason why guitarist Bill Orcutt decided to name his new album after a 1959 film noir directed by Robert Wise. You could make a case that his unique brand of twisted yet melodic guitar is "jazz noir" or "blues noir", but it seems far too brash for that kind of label. One thing that's unequivocal is that Odds Against Tomorrow is a tremendous collection of solo performances that helps to further seal Orcutt's reputation as one of the most adventurous guitarists around today.
The Miami-born, San Francisco-based Orcutt has been wresting all sorts of exotic and brilliant sounds out of his guitar for decades, both as a member of the punk band Hairy Pussy (with his then-wife, drummer Adris Hoyos) and as a solo artist. He has collaborated with innovative drummers such as Chris Corsano (on Brace Up!) and Jacob Felix Heule (on Colonial Donuts). Many of his solo guitar albums, such as A History of Every One and his 2017 self-titled release, focus on putting a serrated, bracing spin on cover songs - often standards along the lines of "Zip a Dee Doo Dah", "The Star-Spangled Banner", and "White Christmas". But Odds Against Tomorrow marks a new approach as it's a return to original solo guitar compositions.
Fans of the experimental guitar work of Nels Cline and Marc Ribot will find plenty to love here. While Orcutt weaves an unusual, jarring web of notes, it's not mindless plunking or blind slashes of guitar chords. He's a highly gifted musician, with a playing style that is both challenging and oddly moving. The opening title track – which, like the rest of the album, was recorded through a Fender Twin amplifier in Orcutt's Bay Area living room – has a bluesy/country feel that evokes wide-open spaces with sparse chords behind Orcutt's chaotic bursts. These bursts veer from gentle to manic without ever losing the emotional punch. It's like a four-minute master class in how to approach the electric guitar both experimentally and emotionally.
Part of what gives the title track its additional weight is that it's one of only three songs on the album that features multi-tracking – the others being "The Writhing Jar" and "Already Old". The former song allows Orcutt to employ an insistent rhythm loop while letting his leads both fly into the stratosphere as well as ape the accompanying rhythm figure. Meanwhile, the latter song sees the two guitar tracks play off each other beautifully and equally.
Orcutt briefly delves into full-on blues with "Stray Dog", chock full of cathartic squalls of lead guitar within its brief run time. But he seems more happy to experiment with a less moored style of playing on songs like "All Your Buried Corpses Begin to Speak" in which plenty of spiky edges stick out of the track.
Odds Against Tomorrow closes with the stately, elegiac "A Man Dies", perhaps the album's most restrained – yet no less beautiful – moment. The song proves that while Orcutt can positively dazzle with brash forms of technique, he's just as capable of gorgeous understatement. Whether he's putting his stamp on a standard or plowing through his own material, Bill Orcutt cuts an impressive, lyrical figure, and one that is hard to ignore.